As protesters massed outside, the spokeswoman for a movement representing immigrants from France's former colonies went on trial Wednesday for allegedly insulting white French in what may be the first anti-white racism case in France.
The verdict, expected Jan. 25, may turn on a hyphen.
The trial grew out of a legal complaint from a far-right group, the General Alliance Against Racism and Respect for French and Christian Identity, Agrif, against Houria Bouteldja for using a word she invented to refer to white French that she claims was misconstrued. She was charged with "racial injury" and, if convicted, risks up to six months in prison and a maximum euro25,000 ($32,500) fine, though courts usually issue far lighter sentences.
Bouteldja, of the movement Indigenes of the Republic, called native white French "souchiens" in a TV interview. The word derives from "souche," or stock, as native white French are commonly called, but could sound like a hyphenated word meaning "lower than a dog."
Bouteldja's remarks on France-3 television station four years ago caused a clamor in large part because they cut straight to long-simmering issues over inequity between white French and French whose origins are in former North African and African colonies _ some of whose families took up arms to help France fight during the world wars.
Her Indigenes movement, now a tiny political party, tries to fight racism and promote equal rights for people with roots in "post-colonial immigration."
The TV interview and media stories that ensued put Bouteldja's remarks on center-stage. Brice Hortefeux, serving at the time as immigration and national identity minister, said he was "injured" and "shocked" by what sounded like an insulting play on words but took no action.
Security at the twice-postponed trial was high as about 150 protesters gathered outside, some representing the Indigenes movement and others from several extreme-right groups such as Bloc Identitaire (Identity Bloc), fighting what they claim is the Islamization of France and Europe by Muslim immigrants. Riot police kept the two sides apart.
Prosecutor Patrice Michel stressed the ambiguity of the word used by Bouteldja in the TV interview, but also said that her use of the word appeared aimed at "purposely hurting and outraging a certain category of French." He added, however, that doubt persists and that his interpretation did not constitute proof.
There was no doubt for Bernard Antony, president of Agrif and formerly a European lawmaker for the far-right National Front party. He denounced before the court what he claimed is the "racist folly" of Bouteldja and "an anti-white racism that exists and is growing."
"I'm thinking of my 14 grandchildren," he said.
Bouteldja claims she never meant to refer to native white French as being "lower than a dog." She told the court that she spoke of "souchiens" "to criticize the French expression 'French of stock,' which prevents me from feeling fully French."
In an interview ahead of the trial, she said the French expression "allows one to believe there are two categories of French, those of stock and the others, which creates two-speed citizens."
Defense lawyer Henri Braun, asking the court to acquit his client, said Bouteldja was really denouncing "the rise in hate and racism and tensions over the mythical French identity which propagates the idea that there are real French," and other French who are not real.
"They want you (the court) to judge that French of stock exist and strengthen the legitimacy of this ridiculous notion," he said.