For the last week or so, France has been deep in debate, wondering if there's a resurgence of an old, colonial racism, or if people have just become more tolerant of bigots.
The questions stem from a series of race-based taunts against Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black. Many of the statements seem to stem from Taubira's championing of the country's gay marriage legalization, which was signed into law in May.
But 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.
Then a group gathered to protest the gay marriage law was caught yelling, "Monkey, go eat your banana!" The video circulated widely on YouTube.
"The issue is not about the small minority of people who are deeply racist in France," says Louis Georges Tin, head of an umbrella group of French black associations. "The issue is about the majority. Is the majority indifferent to this situation? Or is the majority against racism?"
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 who consider themselves not at all racist (44 percent) is lower than ever. Many say it's the government's fault for not defending Taubira more forcefully.
"When you see kids waving bananas and such racist acts multiplying, it's unbelievable," says Harlem Desir, general secretary of the ruling Socialist party, speaking in French. "I haven't seen anything like this in 30 years. This is not France. We have to stand up to racism like this."
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.
"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," Taubira said on the nightly news, speaking in French. "That's why I'm so stunned."
Taubira says she knows these are not the true voices of France; others say they're not so sure.
Harry Roselmack, who became the first black anchor of a major network in France in 2006, wrote in an editorial in Le Monde newspaper of the huge gap between what the French republic promises, and what French society delivers.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.