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Does France have a racism problem?

AFP/The Local · 9 Sep 2014, 09:39

Published: 09 Sep 2014 09:39 GMT+02:00

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"Provocation", "a Moroccan Muslim", "an Ayatollah": the appointment of a young Morocco-born woman as France's education minister has sparked a wave of attacks that has renewed concerns about racism in the country.

Najat Vellaud-Belkacem is one of the brightest lights in President Francois Hollande's deeply unpopular government.

The 36-year-old telegenic Hollande protegee was appointed last month as the country's first-ever female education minister, the latest step in a prodigious political career.

But her appointment was greeted with a volley of complaints from the far-right, with its weekly mouthpiece Minute describing the appointment of "a Moroccan Muslim" as a "provocation."

Another right-wing publication, Valeurs Actuelles, described her as the new "Ayatollah" at the education ministry.

And the latest controversy: over the weekend, a false letter circulated on Twitter, purportedly from the minister, encouraging town halls to introduce an hour of Arabic-language class in schools.

The education ministry has said it will take legal action against the forgers for identity theft but sources close to Vellaud-Belkacem said the minister largely shrugs off the attacks.

She has been attacked on social networks for years, says her entourage, but her appointment to such an important ministry has "changed the scale".

On the other hand, the "outrageous attacks have sparked a change in opinion" and she has received countless notes of support. She is only "very slightly" affected by the campaign against her, according to her close advisors.

Her approval rating is running at 51 percent, which her boss Hollande -- at 13 percent -- can only dream of.

'I was called a monkey'

Togo-born Kofi Yamgnane, who was elected in 1997 to the lower house of parliament as a Socialist deputy from the northern Brittany region, said that social networks had given racists a greater platform.

"French racists have lost their taboos ... it's not that France is more or less racist (than other countries), but the racists have no inhibitions. 

Social networks have also offered freedom of speech to the racists," he said.

"The racists are less numerous than the others but, because we don't hear the others, you get the impression that the racists are strong. I would encourage people to speak out. Minorities need to be defended," he added.

Another high-profile black minister, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, has also suffered insults, notably from the Minute weekly, which featured her on its front page with the headlines "Crafty as a monkey" and "Taubira gets
her banana back."

In French, getting your banana back is roughly the equivalent of recovering the spring in your step.

Story continues below…

Rama Yade, a former minister who is black, said she received several letters comparing her to a monkey and inviting her to "go back home."

"I was the first young woman, born abroad, in the government. People didn't know how to deal with that. Observers didn't know how to describe me... it was terribly violent and unfair," she said.

"Sometimes people tell me that I shouldn't be seen too much because the (far-right) National Front is riding high. But, on the contrary, one has to offer an alterative to the National Front that shows a multi-cultural France,"
added Yade.

Historian Pascal Blanchard, who specialises in colonialism and immigration, said the appointment of high-flyers like Vellaud-Belkacem and Taubira in fact showed that "equality is making strides."

"These women are occupying high-level positions. This means the system is changing," he said, drawing a parallel to the attacks on top Jewish politicians in the 1930s.

"France is no more racist than other countries. In Poland, there are no attacks like this because it would be inconceivable to have a women with a North African background," noted the historian.

AFP/The Local (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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