The State Prosecutor in the French city of Orléans is investigating possible incitement to racial hatred, following Twitter attacks on a mixed-race girl chosen to play Joan of Arc in upcoming city celebrations.
17-year-old Mathilde Edey Gamassou had been chosen to play the Medieval heroine of French history in Orléans’ annual Johannique festival. A local schoolgirl of African (Bénin) and Polish descent, she will ride on horseback through the city center dressed in armor during the celebrations, commemorating Joan of Arc’s breaking of the siege of the city by the English in 1429.
The Maiden of Orléans remains a politically sensitive figure in France. Joan of Arc was considered a loose cannon in her day: a teenage girl leading an army and a Catholic mystic who had visions telling her to throw the English out of France during the Hundred Years’ War. Since the 1970s, the National Front has appropriated her image as a defender of the motherland, organizing annual demonstrations in Paris on May 1.
Cette jeune femme métisse, catholique, Mathilde Edey Gamassou, a été choisie pour figurer #JeanneDarc. Elle a été l’objet de moqueries, certains estimant qu’elle n’est pas assez blanche. Bande de débiles racistes, continuez à donner du grain à moudre au moulin des indigénistes! pic.twitter.com/8ZCgeH8DP2
— Pamela Tamby (@PamelaTamby) February 23, 2018
Local newspaper La République du Centre reported that the State Prosecutor is focusing on two Tweets in particular. One, posted by Joachim Murat on Tuesday, claims that “the biggest problem is that she is ugly enough to die, we are getting close to a baboon’s head.” The other was a response posting pictures of bananas.
However, alongside Tweets defending her, messages insulting Mathilde’s looks have continued to appear. One user asserted that “she’s as ugly as a headlouse (and) she can’t represent Joan of Arc as a mixed-race person.”
Other Tweets questioned the appropriateness of using a non-white girl to represent France’s Medieval heroine. For instance, another user argued that “a mixed-race #JoanofArc is like having a blond Chinese mandala (sic) or Lincoln as a Beninois. You can’t transfigure historical figures for the sake of mixing and open-mindedness.”
Another user joked, “It could be worse. She could be English!”
Bénédicte Baranger, president of Orléans-Jeanne d’Arc, the selection committee, shared her dismay at the insults on RMC, one of the country’s leading radio stations: “This personal attack, I find that disgusting. We had a variety of candidates, as every other year, and Mathilde seemed to us to be the obvious choice. Not because of the feeling we had to fulfil a pseudo-obligation of openness, that isn’t my problem. She was chosen for her qualities.”
Selection criteria include being a practicing Catholic schoolgirl, a resident of Orléans for over 10 years, and giving of her time for others.
During the same interview Mathilde’s father, Patrice Rey Gamassou, argued that the original Joan of Arc had faced similar attacks in her time: “She was called a foreigner by her opponents, she wasn’t French. We are reliving the same things.” Nevertheless, drawing inspiration from the Maiden of Orléans’ Catholic faith, he explained his preferred response would be to pray: “My God, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
France’s Secretary of State for Equality between Men and Women, Marlène Schiappa, tweeted her support to Mathilde, promising her support for legal action and insisting that “Joan of Arc does not belong to the group claiming to defend national identity. Neither does French history.”
Orléans’s Johannique festival was instituted right after the rescue of the city in 1429. Since then, it has taken place annually from the end of April to May 8. Combining a historical street pageant, a Catholic mass in the Cathedral, and a military parade, it is a source of enormous pride for the city.