By Nancy Ing, Producer, 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.”
She called the remarks “violent” in another interview on evening newscast France 2. “I absorb the shock but it’s violent for my children.”
Meanwhile, the country that is notorious for its strikes and protests has seen no organized demonstrations to condemn the insults. This may have something to do with the fact that the term “multiculturalism” is often seen as a shameful reminder of the country’s darkest period during World War II when it ghettoized Jewish citizens and handed them over to the Nazis.
Squeamishness about discussing multiculturalism and compiling statistics on minorities comes as the country’s troubled relationship with marginalized groups — including those who trace their ancestry to former colonies or protectorates like Morocco and Algeria — periodically tips into violence.
In 2012, there was a 23 percent rise in racist acts in France, according to the National Consulting Commission of Human Rights.
In typical French style, the country’s artists and intellectuals are speaking out in support of Taubira and against what they perceive to be a growing wave of racism.
“We are all French monkeys,” declared a full-page ad in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper bought by intellectual and artistic luminaries on Sunday.
Taubira was also invited by France’s world-famous philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy to a gathering of writers, filmmakers and intellectuals.
“We are here, madame, to express our anger, for sure, to confront this rise and return of infamy and racism, and to confront all these remarks that are in the process of gently justifying or explaining or excusing partially what was done to you,” he said.
Levy also suggested Taubira be the next model for the statue of France’s revolutionary heroine, Marianne. The statue, which symbolizes freedom and the patriotic mother who protects the children of the republic, has been modeled on figures like Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Latetia Casta.
“It’s time that Marianne reflected the face of minorities who proudly represent France,” Levy said.