French Court Convicts Magazine Over Racist Portrayal of Black Lawmaker

PARIS — A court in Paris on Wednesday found a conservative French magazine guilty under French hate speech laws of making racist insults over a fictional narrative that it published last year depicting a lawmaker as an enslaved African who was put up for auction in the 18th century.

The magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, caused outrage in France after it published a seven-page fictional narrative about Danièle Obono, 41, a French legislator for the far-left France Unbowed party who is Black and was born in the former French colony of Gabon.

The piece was accompanied by images — including one of Ms. Obono with chains around her neck — prompting condemnation from the government and politicians from parties across the political spectrum. Ms. Obono called it “an insult to my history, to my family and ancestral histories, to the history of slavery.”

The article depicted Ms. Obono, a legislator with the far-left France Unbowed party, as an enslaved African who was put up for auction in the 18th century.Credit…Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The publisher of Valeurs Actuelles, Erik Monjalous, who was charged with making discriminatory public insults, was fined 1,500 euros, or about $1,750. The magazine’s editor in chief, Geoffroy Lejeune, and the author of the article, Laurent Jullien, both accused of being complicit in that offense, were fined the same amount. All three were ordered to pay Ms. Obono 5,000 euros in damages.

“Justice is served,” Ms. Obono, who represents Paris in the lower house of Parliament, said on Twitter. “We are here, we are here to stay, and we won’t leave. And in the end, we will win.”

The publication of the article came as France is having a growing and often difficult reckoning with its colonial and slave-trading past. Many say that painful history is too often ignored; figures on the right and far-right complain that it is too often exaggerated.

The article by Valeurs Actuelles, published last August, was part of a series of short narratives, written by an anonymous author, that depicted contemporary political figures in earlier historical periods.

The narrative about Ms. Obono, set in the 18th century, placed her in a small village in present-day Chad, where it said she was initially delighted to “reconnect with her roots” before growing disillusioned by the village’s “patriarchal order.” The narrative continued by portraying her as captured and falling into the inter-African slave trade, before being bought by a French cleric who frees her and takes her to a monastery in France to recover from the experience.

Faced with a firestorm of criticism, editors at the magazine apologized but denied that the story and the images were racist. Instead, they said, the story was satire intended to remind readers that slavery in Africa had not only been perpetrated by Europeans, but also by Africans.

French law criminalizes some forms of hate speech, including publicly insulting someone on ethnic or religious grounds. Prosecutors in Paris opened an investigation several days after the article was published, and a trial was held in June.

People holding signs at a protest in front of the headquarters of Valeurs Actuelles magazine in Paris in September 2020.Credit…Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

France’s Human Rights League, which took part in the trial, welcomed the ruling in a statement on Wednesday, saying that “while fiction must be free, it cannot serve as a fig-leaf for deliberately racist and insulting speech.”

Valeurs Actuelles, a small, general newsmagazine established in 1966, has often been accused of offensive or incendiary coverage. In May, it caused a stir by publishing an anonymous letter, purportedly written by active-duty troops in the French military, that warned of an impending “civil war” fueled by Islamism and identity politics.

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