'We must mobilise so it stops': Miss France runner-up hit by torrent of online anti-Semitism

Henry Samuel
·4 min read
Miss Provence April Benayoum competes on stage during the Miss France 2021 beauty contest at the Puy-du-Fou, in Les Epesses, western France -  LOIC VENANCE/AFP
Miss Provence April Benayoum competes on stage during the Miss France 2021 beauty contest at the Puy-du-Fou, in Les Epesses, western France - LOIC VENANCE/AFP

The runner-up in this year's Miss France beauty contest said it was disheartening to see that “we are still here in 2020” in response to a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse she received online after mentioning that her father was Israeli.

Paris prosecutors on Monday said they had opened an inquiry into "racist insults and provoking racial hatred” against April Benayoum, 21, who is reigning Miss Provence and came second in the national pageant on Saturday night.

The offence of publishing anti-Semitic remarks carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a €45,000 (£41,000) fine.

Among the 40,000 tweets citing Miss Provence and Israel on Saturday night, one read "Hitler forgot about this one" and another "Don't vote for a Jew". The slurs marred an event watched by more than eight million people on TF1, France’s biggest TV channel.

Reacting for the first time to the insults, Ms Benayoum, who is studying marketing in Aix, told regional newspaper La Provence: “We must mobilise so that it stops."

“I didn’t try and provoke anyone at all. France is a cosmopolitan country. The “Miss” come from different origins, cultures and regions and that’s what makes this contest beautiful.”

She told Nice-Matin, another regional paper, that despite the violence of the insults, they “don’t affect me at all”.

Ms Benayoum competes on stage during the Miss France 2021 beauty contest at the Puy-du-Fou, in Les Epesses, western France.  -  LOIC VENANCE/AFP
Ms Benayoum competes on stage during the Miss France 2021 beauty contest at the Puy-du-Fou, in Les Epesses, western France. - LOIC VENANCE/AFP

During the contest, she told judges that her mother was Serbo-Croat and her father was Israeli-Italian, leading to a barrage of abuse on Twitter.

“Some of these tweets are still online. It’s unacceptable,” said Marlène Schiappa, minister for citizenship, who condemned “the anti-Semitic remarks of an unheard-of violence all evening” against Ms Benayoum.

“The social networks must assume their responsibilities,” she said.

Paris’ anti-delinquency brigade, BRDP, is handling the investigation.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said that he had “mobilised the police and the gendarmerie” after learning of the abuse, adding that he was “deeply shocked by the deluge of extraordinarily violent antisemitic insults”.

This year’s contest was won by Amandine Petit, 23, the reigning Miss Normandie.

Miss France 2021 told Le Parisien she was shocked by the response: “Anti-Semitism has no place in society, even less so in a beauty contest. We were there for an enchanting interlude and it has no place.  (April) needs support. She is runner-up and deservedly so.”

Renaud Muselier, president of the Provence region, slammed the abuse as “an abomination” and added: “She perfectly represents our region and our country.”

This is by no means the first time Miss France has seen racism.

Newly elected Miss France 2021 Miss Normandie Amandine Petit reacts as she is elected Miss France 2021  - AFP
Newly elected Miss France 2021 Miss Normandie Amandine Petit reacts as she is elected Miss France 2021 - AFP

Last year’s election of Clémence Botino, Miss Guadeloupe, as Miss France, prompted a burst of abuse on social media.

Sonia Rolland, Miss France 2000 who has a French father and Rwandan mother, came under a deluge of insults, including 2,000 letters of hate, and even had excrement and spit dumped on her doorstep and her car vandalised.

After the latest hate messages, she tweeted: “Support to April Benayoum. Discrimination has no place in our society. Stop racism, stop antisemitism.”

The EU's internal market commissioner Thierry Breton meanwhile said Twitter and other social media platforms would have to act more swiftly to remove hate speech under a new Digital Services Act proposed for the bloc this month.

"What we're proposing is to confirm that platforms give themselves the means to respond instantly to demands from the authorities when offences like this occur," Mr Breton told BFM television on Sunday in response to the Miss France messages.

France, which has the biggest Jewish population in Europe, has seen a rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and hate speech that President Emmanuel Macron has called "unacceptable."

In 2018, the number of anti-Jewish offences reported to police surged 74 per cent after two years of declines, according to the interior ministry.

Miss France was recently forced to defend itself against claims the beauty contest is an "archaic caricature” of gender roles in which women are “objects not subjects” by insisting it has introduced IQ tests and cut down on bare flesh in the age of #metoo.

In a vitriolic critique handed to the French government in March, France's Higher Council of Gender Equality, HCE, slammed Miss France along with a string of Gallic reality TV shows, as encouraging sexist and misogynist comments on social media.

“By judging women only on physical criteria, this type of programme opens the door to violent opinions concerning the candidates based on sexist criteria, such as rating their physique, mockery, denigration and insults,” it wrote.

In its defence, TF1 said that it had “moved the programme on” notably by reducing skimpy outfits and introducing intelligence tests.