by Nancy Ing, Producer, NBC News
NBC News – PARIS – A 12-year-old girl waves a banana at a black government minister and shouts: “Who’s this banana for? It’s for the monkey!”
Such slurs – and a generally muted official response to them – have caused a bout of soul-searching in France. The question at the heart of the debate: is racism rampant in a country with revolutionary roots and a motto boasting of “equality” and “liberty”?
The issue has dominated discussion since the same politician, Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, was likened to a monkey by a candidate for the right-wing National Front. The candidate was forced to withdraw, but the tensions lingered.
Last week, extreme-right weekly magazine Minute ran a photo of Taubira and the headline “Clever as a Monkey. Taubira reclaims the banana” on its cover.
Some critics allege the government has been slow to respond. When it did condemn the acts of racism against Taubira in the National Assembly on Nov. 12, only half the lawmakers left their seats for a standing ovation as she entered the chamber.
All this adds up to one thing, according to Harry Roselmack, the first black journalist to host nightly news on French television.
“A racist France is on its way back,” he wrote in an editorial in Le Monde newspaper.
“They are not slips of the tongue; they are the unvarnished expression of a world view widely shared in the National Front,” Roselmack said, referring to the far-right political group.
The National Front has become a political force to be reckoned with. A recent survey found that 42 percent of voters polled had a positive opinion of the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen.
Taubira, who was born in French Guiana in South America and has been a French citizen since birth, spoke out about the attacks in an interview with the Liberation newspaper.
“Millions of people are affected when I am treated as a monkey,” she said. “Millions of kids know that someone can treat them as monkeys in the schoolyard.”