It’s a seemingly innocent enough photo: eight healthy, well-dressed and cute kids stand in a row at school in a Facebook posting with information for parents anxious over the start of the new school year.
But the image, which shows a majority of black children and one clearly visible white child sparked a flood of racist comments – as well as an avalanche of anti-racist responses.
The tone of many of the 1,000-plus comments – not including those deleted by the government – became so harsh the Ministry of Education stepped in and denounced the “abusive and racist” character of some threads.
“This page is a place of positive and constructive dialogue about school and is not a political forum,” the ministry said.
Among the mountain of comments that have accumulated in the post since it went up on Thursday were those from Facebook user Mike Plusultra who tapped into the fear that France is being overrun by immigrants.
“I don’t think this photo is very representative of French schools: What the heck is the white kid still doing there? Oh, I just heard he’s from Kosovo. The future of France, the replacement of the population is well underway,” he said.
Scores of users pounced on the photo to echo similar views that France is being destroyed by foreigners, but also by its Socialist government. Commentor Serge Bogaerts said: "There is nothing racist and hurtful about making note of the anti-French racism that this photo represents and the hate of this government toward France and its people."
Yet there was an equally ferocious response from people shocked and disgusted by the tenor of the anti-diversity comments. Commentor Rachel Termoz-Masson was afraid by what she believes the debate says about France.
“France is scary these days, no no, not the photo, but these scandalous comments from disrespectful, intolerant and ugly adults. These kids are so cute and that’s it!”
Facebook user Petit Fripon seconded that view.
"Beautiful photo. These kids are cute and a child is first and foremost a child, no matter his skin color, otherwise it's just racism. And to those shocked by the photo, black children go to the schools of our republic, even if it bothers you," he said.
Globalization and immigration have lead to France being home to an increasingly multi-cultural society, but it has not been without friction.
France has seen a rise of the anti-immigrant far-right as its economy has declined, while over the years governments has grappled with how to integrate large, immigrant-based communities.
In April this year an annual study, seen as a barometer on levels of intolerance and xenophobia in the country, revealed that one in three admitted they held racist views.
The report made for sober reading, with levels of intolerance apparently on the rise for the fourth year running and the number of French people concerned by immigration (16 percent) at the highest level since 2002.
And according to the BVA poll which the report is based on as many as 35 percent of French people admit to being “quite” or “a little” racist.
The poll was published in the week after the anti-immigration National Front (FN) party secured historic results in the local elections, picking up a record 11 towns.
“The commission’s report is presents figures that are very worrying for French society,” wrote Louis-Georges Tin, president of CRAN (Representative Council of Black Associations) for the Nouvel Obs website.
Tin said the most worrying stat from the report was the fact that six out ten French people said “certain behaviour can sometimes justify racist reactions”, which he says “makes racist opinions excusable”.
He also said the rise in intolerance was linked to that of the National Front, although racism in France was not limited to the far right he said.