RETHEL, France- A former French local election candidate for the far-right National Front (FN) has been sentenced to nine months in prison for comparing the country's black justice minister to a monkey.
The court decision has sparked controversy in France, with anti-discrimination associations welcoming it as a reminder that racism should not be allowed to flourish but the party itself denouncing the move as "grotesquely disproportionate" and politically motivated. Anne-Sophie Leclere provoked a storm last year when she compared Christiane Taubira to a monkey on French television and admitted to posting a photo-montage on Facebook that showed the justice minister, who is from French Guiana, alongside a baby chimpanzee.
The caption underneath the baby monkey said "At 18 months," while the one under Taubira's photograph read "Now". Leclere had been an FN candidate in Rethel in the northeastern Ardennes region for 2014 local elections, but the party soon dropped her and went on to do well in the March polls.
On Tuesday, a court in Cayenne - the capital of French Guiana - sentenced her to nine months in jail, barred her from standing in elections for five years and fined her 50,000 euros ($68,000). It also slapped the FN with a 30,000-euro fine, putting an end to a case brought by French Guiana's Walwari political party founded by Taubira.
The court went well beyond the demands of prosecutors, who had asked for a four-month jail sentence, five years of ineligibility and a 5,000-euro fine. Leclere, who was not present in the court, said on Wednesday that she would appeal the verdict.
"It's completely disproportionate, I was really shocked to hear about the sentence. Criminals are sentenced and they get an (electronic monitoring) bracelet, and they give me prison," she told AFP. In a statement, the FN also said it would appeal its 30,000-euro fine.
"The National Front never gave Mrs Leclere the means to make those comments," Florian Philippot, vice president of the FN, told RMC radio. "That she (Leclere) be condemned politically, we did that. That she be condemned judicially, probably, but not in these proportions. It's grotesquely disproportionate, it just doesn't make sense. "It's clear that it's a political sentence."
But several anti-racism associations welcomed the decision. SOS Racisme said the sentence - "a rare and possibly unprecedented event - is a reminder that racism is deeply prejudicial to living together and that to let it flourish or tolerate it in the Republic cannot be accepted."
- A racist party -
In her television appearance last year, Leclere said she would prefer to see Taubira "in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government." "She is wild," Leclere said, adding: "I have black friends and it doesn't mean I call them monkeys." Leclere has since defended her comments, saying that while clumsy, they were not racist.
She said the photo-montage was a "joke" and added: "The photo was posted on my Facebook page and I took it off a few days later. I was not the creator of this photograph." Taubira has been on the receiving end of several racial slurs over the past year. Not long after Leclere's comments, far-right weekly newspaper Minute went on sale with a cover featuring a picture of Taubira and headlines which read: "Crafty as a monkey" and "Taubira gets her banana back."
In French, getting your banana back is roughly the equivalent of recovering the spring in your step. Joel Pied of Walwari said Tuesday's court decision was "historic and beneficial". "A prominent institution of the Republic recognises that the National Front is punishable by law and that it's a racist party. We hope this decision will mark a milestone."