“The decision to cast a mixed-race teenager in the role of French heroine Joan of Arc in annual celebrations has sparked a barrage of racial abuse from far-right sympathisers.
Mathilde Edey Gamassou, 17, made history to become the first mixed-race person chosen to take on the leading role in the traditional event, which will see her riding on horseback through the city of Orléans.
But the teenager, whose father is Franco-Beninese and whose mother is Polish, has been targeted on social media and far-right websites.
Ms Gamassou beat around 250 other girls to be given the role. She met all the criteria required to play Joan of Arc in the celebrations, as decided by a committee of representatives from Orléans council, local organisations, the church and the army.
These include having lived in in Orléans for at least 10 years, going to school in the city, being a Catholic and giving her time to others.
Benedicte Baranger, president of the Jeanne D’arc Association of Orleans told AFP that Ms Gamassou “was chosen for who she is, an interesting person and a lively spirit,” and said she was saddened by the hateful backlash.
The abuse had become so serious that the public prosecutor in France announced it would be investigating at least two related tweets, according to the BBC. One of the tweets is reported to have included images of bananas and the second involved a baboon.
There was also discriminatory commentary on various French far-right websites, and further angry social media posts from those who felt the selection was “rewriting history”.
One Twitter user said: “We are the only ones who have to sacrifice our history, the white race in Europe here for thousands of years. Be proud of us, we are a great people.”
Many sprung to the defence of the teenager.
Marlene Schiappa, a French politician serving as the Secretary of State in charge of Equality between Women and Men tweeted her support for Ms Gamassou.
She said: “The racist hatred of fascists has no place in the French republic.”
The Mayor of Orléans, Olivier Carré, also tweeted his joy at being a part of a ceremony introducing the teenager.
He posted pictures of the event and said: “What an honour to present the girl who will be Joan of Arc in the 2018 celebrations.” He praised Ms Gamassou for her “courage”, “faith” and “vision”.
Ms Gamassou’s father, Patrice Edey Gamassou, stood firmly in defence of his daughter.
He told Bourdoin Direct on RMC: “Jeanne d’Arc was treated in her day as a ‘foreigner’ by her opponents, she wasn’t French. We are living the same story. We want to tell them, my god, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
Ms Baranger also told the news channel: “Personal attacks are hateful… We chose Mathilde not because we wanted to felt obligated to appear open, that’s not my problem, she was chosen for her skills.”
Joan of Arc is celebrated across France for her role in liberating Orléans from the control of the English in 1429 during the Hundred Years War. The liberation of the city is often seen as a turning point in the conflict.
Joan was later burned at the stake, aged just 19. She is seen as a figurehead for the liberation across France, and is particularly revered by members of far-right organisations.”