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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

France has been plunged into some soul searching, after its minister of justice, who is black, was subject to a series of public racist taunts. Many wonder whether France itself is becoming more racist or more tolerant of racism.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

CHRISTIANE TAUBIRA: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: That's Justice Minister Christiane Taubira defending the government's gay marriage bill in the French Parliament earlier this year. Ever since the law passed in May, Taubira has been a target for those opposed to it. Things took a nasty turn about a month ago.

A politician from the far-right National Front party posted a photo of Taubira next to a monkey on a Facebook page, and said France would be better off if she was swinging from the trees instead of in the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

BEARDSLEY: Then, a group of adults and children, who were gathered to protest the gay marriage law, were caught on film yelling: Monkey, go eat your banana. The video circulated widely on YouTube. Both incidents shocked many people. But where was the national outrage, wondered pundits.

Louis-Georges Tin is head of L'Ecran an umbrella group of several French black associations.

LOUIS-GEORGES TIN: The issue is not about the small minority of people who are deeply racist in France. The issue is about the majority. Is the majority indifferent with the situation? Or is the majority against racism?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

BEARDSLEY: For the last week or so, France has been deep in debate, as in this talk show, wondering if there's a resurgence of an old, colonial racism or if people have just become more tolerant of bigots. Some blame the racist outbreak on a resurgence of the far right. Others say years of hostile, anti-immigrant talk from former President Nicolas Sarkozy has made people numb to it all.

A recent survey showed the number of French people who consider themselves not at all racist, 44 percent, is lower than ever. Many say it's the government's fault for not defending Justice Minister Taubira more forcefully.

Harlem Desir is the general-secretary of the ruling Socialist Party.

HARLEM DESIR: (Through Translator) When you see kids waving bananas and such racist acts multiplying, it's unbelievable. I haven't seen anything like this in 30 years. This is not France. We have to stand up to racism like this.

BEARDSLEY: A third incident this week, forced the government to act. A far-right magazine published a picture of Taubira on its cover with a headline: Clever as a Monkey and a play on the word banana. The government is bringing a lawsuit against the paper, as are several anti-racism groups.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira finally spoke out on the nightly news.

TAUBIRA: (Through Translator) These violent comments don't just come from anywhere, they emanate from a nation that has always stood up for human rights, equality and a common destiny for its citizens. That's why I'm so stunned.

BEARDSLEY: Taubira said she knows these are not the true voices of France. But others aren't so sure.

HARRY ROSELMACK: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Harry Roselmack, heard here presenting the nightly news, became the first black anchor of a major network, in 2006. In an editorial in Le Monde newspaper, Roselmack wrote of the huge gap between what the French republic promises, and what French society delivers.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news Paris.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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