"I'm proud to represent a multicultural France," gushed Flora Coquerel last Saturday as she accepted the title of Miss France 2014. Unfortunately, some of her countrymen did not feel the same kind of egalitarian pride.
Within minutes, social media was drowned in comments: Miss France set Twitter on fire with over 1.1 million tweets that night, according to TF1, Gala, and Le Télégramme. And a portion of those comments were horrifying: "I'm not a racist but shouldn't the Miss France contest only be open to white girls?" to "Fuck, a n***er" or "Death to foreigners."
According to French media, the most popular hashtags that night were "shame", "black", 'n***er.' Numerous articles claimed Coquerel's victory was 'surfing on the Nelson Mandela wave', as if there were a pro-black agenda in fashion because he just passed away. Or, they claimed that her win was the result of president François Hollande's 'Black agenda' (the latter has strongly encouraged a more multicultural government, including minister of Justice, Guiana-born Christiane Taubira.)
Yet, the saddest aspect of the racist outburst is that this isn't the first time people freaked out when a woman of color was crowned Miss France. In 2000, Rwanda-born Sonia Rolland won the same contest and received nearly 3000 letters of insults. One of them even contained feces alongside a note stating "this is what your face reminds me off when I see you on television."
There have also been racist outbursts when a non-Caucasian person has been chosen to represent the country, when the diverse French football team engages in the World Cup, or when a non-white celebrity wins a national television contest.
"France has a deeply ingrained colonialist culture and still believes in a form of racial hierarchy and Gallic supremacy," says Carol Mann, a professor in sociology and gender studies at Paris' Sciences Po University. "The situation is especially touchy with women: ‘'a petite française', 'la parisienne' are highly exportable and marketable myths that the French work hard at maintaining. And those expressions are usually synonymous with fair, European features such as Brigitte Bardot or Marion Cotillard," added Mann.
France is often eager to homogenize its population: to this day, it is forbidden for women of Muslim faith (the country's second leading religion) to wear the hijab to school or for various jobs - and the same applies to yarmulka-wearing Jews. Furthermore, political correctness in language is miles away from American norms. To speak 'pidgin' French' translates to 'parler petit nègre' (speak like a young n***er) and 'nègre' and 'tête de nègre' (n***r’s head) are shades of colors purchasable in shops. And it doesn't stop there. As a Jewish person raised in France, my classmates would casually call being stingy 'faire son juif' (being a Jew); They'd call hitting your funny bone 'l’os du petit juif' (the little Jew's bone).
Thankfully, cultural projects such as Antidote magazine and the work of engagée French fashion editor and writer Katell Pouliquen are bringing more awareness to the table. Pouliquen's vision is that 'multiculturalism is evidence' and she has often fought to put black models on covers, think internationally about fashion and culture, and to include people of mixed origins into a modern French landscape. Hopefully the work of critics, writers and editors working in fashion and culture will contribute to changing the vision of French beauty and femininity.