The racist slurs were part of a private chat between second-year sociology students at the University of Lorraine in Metz, in eastern France. But the conversion was posted online last week, prompting hundreds of protesters to stage a campus protest on Tuesday. Joined by local politicians and residents, the crowd chanted "No to racism at my university, yes to multiculturalism."
The messages were initially shared in December in a Facebook chat called "Oh djadja," a reference to a song by Aya Nakamura, a French singer of Malian origin. They were then posted on social media on April 25.
University officials condemned the messages and said they would open an investigation.
"These people didn’t want us to sit near them”
“I'm not in any of the photos shared in the conversation, but I've experienced racism in that class. Eleven of us in the class are black, out of 36 or 37 in total, and this group of students targeted us.
We'd noticed that these people didn’t want us to sit near them and the divide between white and black students in the class gradually began growing. When we saw the screenshots, we realised what they truly thought of us. We were shocked. We felt betrayed by people we had been studying with for the past two years.We've received huge support from both organisations that fight against racism and the authorities. We are determined to continue to fight racism on campus with non-violence because we live in a country where this type of language is considered criminal under the law.
“They might spray you with perfume because they think you smell”
Houssainatou Barry, one of the victims of the harassment, told France 2 that the group's behavior toward black students was "humiliating".
They called us monkeys and bonobos. It's humiliating. You're afraid to get up in class and talk because they might make fun of your accent. You're afraid to sit next to them or they might spray you with perfume because they think you smell. It’s unacceptable.
Fatoumata Diaby said members of the group made it clear that they didn't want to sit near black students.
They clearly showed that they didn’t want to sit with us. During group presentations, they didn’t want to mix with us. It’s horrible to call us monkeys. It makes sense that we’re upset. And there are other people who experience much worse things than that.
The university condemned the "despicable" comments
Frédérique Vidal, the minister for higher education, said there was “zero tolerance for unacceptable behavior on our campuses and anywhere else”.
Organisers of the protest tried to file a group complaint with the police, but were told that the students needed to file individual complaints, said Lucien Blemou, one of the organisers. "We are trying to file another group complaint with the help of a lawyer,” Blemou said.
This story was written by Liselotte Mas.