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France

Far-right paper causes storm with racist insult to French justice minister Taubira

media The front page of Minute insutling Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.

A far-right paper in France has caused uproar with a headline comparing Guyanese-born Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey. The Minute front page is the latest of several racist insults that Taubira has faced since she guided the government's gay marriage law through parliament.

"Maligne comme un singe, Taubira retrouve la banane" (Cunning as a monkey, Taubira is happy as a sandboy) read the far-right paper's headline read on Wednesday, an unsubtle play on words on two French colloquial expressions - the first, "malin comme un singe" literally means "cunning as a monkey", the second "avoir la banane" compares a grin to a banana and means to be on good form.

Prosecutors have started proceedings against the paper for breaking France's race-hate laws, following Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's threat to prosecute ahead of publication on Tuesday.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has had his differences with Taubira in the past, on Tuesday declared his intention of stopping Minute's distribution but the paper appeared in the kiosks on Wednesday morning.

Taubira herself has declined to take legal action.

Last week Taubira expressed concern over an apparent increase in overt racism in France, following several incidents in which she was insulted by right-wing opponents.

In October a media outcry forced the far-right Front National (FN) to suspend local council candidate Anne-Sophie Leclere after she compared Taubira to a monkey on Facebook.

Since then children accompanying their parents on a protest against gay marriage shouted "Monkey, eat your banana!" at the minister and a priest on a Catholic fundamantalist demonstration linked Taubira to an old advertisment for the chocolate drink Banania, which many consider racist.

"Ya bon Banania, Ya pas bon Taubira" (There be good Banania, there be no good Taubira," a Catholic fundamentalist told the faithful on a recent demonstration.

Minute's headline was an obvious reference to these events and a scornful response to the indignation they caused on the left.

It was also an attempt to boost flagging sales, according Le Monde journalist Abel Mestre, who follows the French far right.

The weekly has lost readers to the glossy Valeurs Actuelles, which also specialises in shocking, if marginally more sophisticated, headlines targeting immigrants and minorities.

Minute, which was founded in 1962 and supported the FN in the 70s, has lost readers since then, especially since it backed the wrong horse in the contest to succeed Jean-Marie Le Pen as the far-right party's leader, supporting university professor and MEP Bruno Gollnisch against Le Pen's daughter Marine.

In January it claimed that a "gay lobby" exercises influence over the new leader, leading Marine Le Pen to tweet on Tuesday that she is "happy to be spat upon by Minute when I look at what it has become" - the closest she has come to condemning the insult to Taubira.

Describing the headline as simply "satirical", Minute's spokesperson Hélène Valette accused anti-racist groups, which have also threatened legal action, of "stirring up a fuss".

"We find that indecent," she said. "There are plenty of other problems in this country."

While Taubira attracted opprobrium from opponents of the gay marriage bill this year, she has been a favourite target of right-wing commentators and activists for some time.

Whoever was appointed justice minister in a Socialist government would be bound to be unpopular with the law-and-order brigade but Taubira became a target of some self-styled "provocateurs" as soon as she was appointed.

Just eight days after she tool on the portfolio radio commentator Eric Zemmour accused her of being prejudiced against "white men", later accusing her of being "Mummy" to "thugs" in the multiracial, working-class banlieues around France's major cities.

Stung by the minister's charge that the Facebook monkey incident revealed the FN's true nature, Marine Le Pen claimed that Taubira had "always been over the top", attributing the tendency to her early support for Guyanese independence.

As far back as 2001 Taubira was accused of playing identity politics when she sponsored a law that declared slavery a crime against humanity.

Leading figures of the mainstream right, such as former prime minister Alain Juppé and MPs Eric Ciotti and Bruno Le Maire, have condemned the latest attack on Taubira, as has hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

The polemic comes as race and minority rights occupy more and more space in the French political debate.

Valls himself is to be sued by anti-racist group Mrap for claiming that most Roma do not want to be integrated into French society, the first time the NGO has taken a left-wing minister to court, while politicians from the mainstream right UMP, such as Paris mayor candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, accuse them of "harassing" the public or raising the crime rate.

After a presidential campaign that saw UMP politicians accused of flirting with Islamophobia and other far-right themes, this year has seen claims of a rise in homophobia and increased agitation by far-right groups following the huge demonstrations against the same-sex marriage bill.

Hoping to profit from the tension is the Front National, revamped to appear more respectable while playing on inter-community tensions and Euroscepticism.

It hopes to do well in local council elections next year and the mainstream parties fear that that hope will be fulfilled - meaning that tolerance and a sense of proportion are likely to be in short supply in the coming months.

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