France’s minister for women’s rights on Wednesday compared women who choose to wear conservative Islamic dress to the “American negroes” who once supported slavery, sparking anger and accusations of racism.The remarks by Minister Laurence Rossignol, during an interview with French TV channel BFM, came as she railed against fashion retailers H&M, Marks and Spencer and Dolce & Gabbana for launching products designed specifically for Muslim women, such as hijabs and the “burkini” – a swimsuit with a built-in hood designed to cover everything except the hands, feet and face.
Such companies were “irresponsible” and guilty of “promoting the confinement of women’s bodies”, said Rossignol.
When the interviewer pointed out that many Muslim women freely choose to adhere to conservative Islamic dress codes, Rossignol responded: “Of course there are women who choose it. There were American negroes who were in favour of slavery.”
‘Error of language’
The comparison – and particularly the language used – sparked an immediate reaction online.
“Racism starts with Laurence Rossignol and ends with insults, violence and blood,’” said one Twitter user, @oboerythme.
“@laurossignol must have missed the government’s anti-racism classes,” said @widadk.
An online Change.org petition was also launched calling for Rossignol to face “sanctions” for her comments.
“It is with anger and exasperation that we have been once again confronted with the verbal violence of a political leader,” wrote the organisers. “Invited to partake in a false debate on ‘Islamic fashion’, [Rossignol] made scandalous propositions, fuelling the conflation and stigmatisation of both Muslim women and the millions of slaves transported [from Africa].”
By midnight the petition had more than 14,600 signatures.
Speaking to AFP later on Wednesday, Rossignol said she had made an “error of language” by using the word “negro” while stressing she would never use the word “except when talking about slavery and the slave trade”.
“But I didn’t take into account the most widespread perception [of the word] – that one doesn’t say ‘negro’ even if it is allowed in respect to slavery,” she said.
"Outside of this error of language, I am not retracting a single word I said" about Islamic dress, the minister added.
In 2010, France controversially introduced a ban on wearing the full Islamic veil, or niqab, in public. Proponents of the ban argued that wearing a veil violated the country’s values of gender equality and secularism, though critics decried it as an infringement of individual liberty.