PARIS—French prosecutors have opened an investigation into a barrage of anti-Semitic insults hurled over social media at the runner-up of the Miss France beauty pageant after she mentioned her father’s Israeli background during the show.
April Benayoum, the 21-year-old Miss Provence, was elected the first dauphine—or runner up—during the contest on Saturday, after a prerecorded presentation in which she mentioned the background of her parents, including her Italian-Israeli father. A wave of anti-Semitic vitriol poured in over Twitter while the contest was ongoing, with some users urging their fellow viewers not to vote for her.
“Uncle Hitler, you forgot to exterminate Miss Provence,” one widely noted tweet read.
The Paris prosecutor’s office on Monday said that it had opened an investigation into racist insults and incitement to racial hatred, each of which is a crime in France punishable by one year in prison and a €45,000 fine, equivalent to about $55,000.
Investigators will now seek to identify the people who posted the tweets in question, a spokesman for the Paris prosecutor said, adding that it would be premature to say how many posts are under investigation or to speculate about their authors’ motives.
By Monday morning, either the accounts behind several of the most widely circulated anti-Semitic tweets about Ms. Benayoum were no longer available, or their tweets had been deleted.
Twitter said it had taken action on a number of tweets under the company’s hateful-conduct policy. “We enforce our rules judiciously and impartially for all and take strong action if an account violates our rules,” a spokeswoman added.
Ms. Benayoum didn’t respond to a request for comment. La Provence, her hometown newspaper, reported Sunday that she had told the paper in an interview, “I find it sad we’re still here in 2020,” adding: “France is a cosmopolitan country, the Miss contestants have different backgrounds, different cultures, different regions and that’s what’s beautiful about this competition.”
The probe comes as France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community at around 500,000, struggles to tamp down widespread anti-Semitism in the country.
Insults and violence targeting the Jewish community hit peaks in 2004 and 2015, according to France’s Jewish Community Security Service, a group that compiles data based on police reports, and have recently been rising again—including a spate that accompanied France’s yellow-vest protests in 2019. That year, the last for which data are available, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France rose 27% to 687, including 151 acts involving violence or vandalism.
Concern over anti-Semitism has been particularly high since a series of attacks that began in 2012 with the slaying of four people at a Jewish school in southwestern France, and the January 2015 killing of four at a kosher supermarket just outside Paris, which followed the attack on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The spread of anti-Semitic tweets during the Miss France contest ramps up pressure on social-media companies just as the European Union has introduced legislation that would make the platforms take more responsibility for the content their users post online—forcing them, for example, to improve content moderation, and face fines in case of systemic failures.
France’s Constitutional Council this past summer struck down an earlier French law that would have obliged Twitter and other companies to remove such content within 24 hours under threat of fines.
“#MissFrance2021 isn’t an anti-Semitism contest,” tweeted Marlene Schiappa, France’s junior minister for citizenship, and a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party. She later added that the incident shows Twitter must do more to remove hate speech from its platform.
The Twitter spokeswoman didn’t specifically comment on Ms. Schiappa’s statement, but the company said it has expanded its hateful conduct policy and is testing new ways to prompt individuals before they share hateful content.
Figures on different sides of the political spectrum also condemned the anti-Semitic postings after the broadcast.
Renaud Muselier, president of the Sud region of France and member of the center-right Republicain party, said on Twitter that the hatred targeting Ms. Benayoum is “an abomination,” adding that her multinational background “perfectly represents our region and our country.”
Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a member of the Socialist party, described the insults against Ms. Benayoum as unacceptable and decried “the hatred toward Israel that has ravaged our society for years.”
Prior Miss France competitions have led to hateful insults, too. Last year, France’s Representative Council of Black Associations filed a complaint about a “surge of racist and hateful postings” on social media about the 2020 Miss France winner, Clémence Botino, who represented the overseas France territory of Guadeloupe.
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