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French MP Laetitia Avia victim of racist threats speaks up

Latest update : 06/03/2018

© Christophe Archambault, AFP | French MP Laetitia Avia of the Republique En Marche (LREM) party at the National Assembly in Paris on November 8, 2017

Article text by Emilie BOYER KING

After French lawmaker Laeticia Avia received a letter containing racist insults and a death threat, she went public and filed a legal complaint. In a number of statements since then, Avia explained why she decided to speak out.

The day after receiving an anonymous letter littered with racist epithets and a death threat, Laeticia Avia spoke on France 5 television. “I was so shocked by the words that I asked myself, how is it still possible that – on this day, February28, 2018 – people still write such things?” said the 32-year-old MP, from President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling La République En Marche (LREM) party. That morning, Avia published the note on Twitter and announced at the same time that she was filing a legal complaint.

The letter contained some offensive language. “We will not let a fat black swine from Africa meddle in French people’s lives. Your media appearances make us sick," it said.

“The African is halfway between a monkey and an animal. Your days are numbered, we’re coming after you.”

Avia disclosed that she receives insults almost every day, but mostly related to her party’s politics in some way, rather than her origins. But this time was different: The author was implying that because of her background – Avia was born in France, but her parents are from Togo – she was unfit to serve in government.

That is why she decided to fight back.

“A few days ago – some of you might know this – I received a letter,” Avia wrote later in a column in the Journal du Dimanche. “After getting over the sheer violence of the insult, the racism and the threat it contained, I am still floored by the fundamental message the author wanted to send: that even though I was elected to government, I am not qualified to get involved in French people’s lives because of my African origins.”

“I represent the generation of children whose parents were demoted and who will never let the colour of their skin be an obstacle to their professional success and their personal fulfilment. I represent the suburbs – that part of the French periphery that sometimes feels like it counts less than elsewhere – as well as another France that brunches on Sunday and strolls around Paris… I represent those thousands of anonymous people who have spoken out to say that they will not tolerate racism, and that this minority voice is not the voice of their nation,” Avia said.

Avia has received widespread support, with Interior Minister Gérard Collomb condemning the “heinous, racist attack” and France’s Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa saying there was “no justification for such violence”.

Work, work, work

The buoyant barrister was a political novice before being swept into office on June 18 last year as one of the MPs representing Paris at the National Assembly (lower house). The enthusiastic "Macronista" was one of the newly elected MPs who came from civil society and different walks of life and backgrounds. These fresh faces seemed to represent a more modern, youthful and diverse France embodied by its new leader, Emmanuel Macron.

Avia’s success is down to a blend of determination and opportunity that sits perfectly with La République en Marche’s declared vision for a modern France. She was born in 1985 in the Livry-Gargan commune north of Paris. Her parents moved there from Togo, where her father studied engineering and her mother was a midwife. In France, unable to find jobs that matched their qualifications, her father worked as a luggage handler and driver and her mother as a nurse.

“My parents taught me that work was the most important value: Work, work, work is the only way to escape your condition and to take control of your life,” Avia said.

Avia acquired French nationality at age 13. She worked hard at school and was accepted by France’s prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris through a new programme designed to facilitate access for disadvantaged students. There she thrived, becoming the programme’s ambassador and honing her public speaking skills promoting it at schools and in the media, both in France and abroad.

'Macron encouraged me'

After spending a year at McGill University in Canada, she became a business lawyer and, in 2016, she founded her own law practice. She met Macron 10 years ago, when they were both involved in a government commission on the legal profession. They sent each other Christmas cards every year and stayed in touch. “Macron followed me, he encouraged me,” Avia told Libération.

When Macron created his own party in 2016, then called En Marche, she joined almost immediately and offered her help. He accepted, taking Avia on as a legal expert. She quickly climbed the ranks, was pushed to stand in the legislative elections, and was elected as a MP in June.

Avia’s brilliant trajectory was singled out by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe in one of his first speeches to the National Assembly after his nomination.

“I want to talk to you about a woman … whose parents … did not expect her to attend a prestigious university, then become a lawyer, working in the most distinguished firms before creating her own. This young woman has now joined these [parliamentary] benches.”

Avia has made it clear that she will not let the offensive letter get in her way. But the incident once again raises questions about enduring intolerance in France. Last month a flurry of racist social media posts were sent out after a teenager, whose parents are from Poland and Benin, was chosen to play Joan of Arc in Orléans in the annual May Day celebration. And former justice minister Christiane Taubira, who was born in French Guiana, was repeatedly compared to a monkey during her tenure.

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