Miss Provence April Benayoum competes on stage during the Miss France 2021 beauty contest at the Puy-du-Fou, in Les Epesses, western France.

French prosecutors on Monday opened an investigation into a torrent of anti-Semitic social media messages aimed at the runner-up of the latest Miss France contest. April Benayoum, 21, who holds the title of Miss Provence and competed for the national crown on Saturday, became the subject of hate messages after saying at the event that her father is of Israeli origin. The insults-such as "Hitler forgot about this one" and "Don't vote for a Jew"-were posted mainly on Twitter and drew condemnation from politicians and associations.

They also prompted criticism of Twitter itself for its handling of offensive material. "I am deeply shocked by the flood of anti-Semitic insults against Miss Provence", Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said. "We will not let this stand. Shame on the authors." Paris prosecutors said Monday that they were investigating the messages for "racist insults" and "instigation of race hatred."

'Anti-Semitic cesspool'
The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra) said the messages had turned Twitter into "an anti-Semitic cesspool" and called on internet users to report the offending content with a view to launching a class action suit. The contest organizers also condemned the attacks, as did the competition's winner, Amandine Petit from Normandy in northwestern France, who called the social media messages "inappropriate" and "extremely disappointing." Benayoum herself deplored "that this kind of thing still goes on in 2020," telling La Provence newspaper: "France is a cosmopolitan country, the Miss contestants come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different regions, and that's what's great about this competition."

EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said Twitter and other social media platforms would have to move quicker to remove hate speech under a new Digital Services Act proposed for the bloc this month. "What we're proposing is to confirm that platforms give themselves the means to respond instantly to demands from the authorities when offences like this occur," Breton told BFM television on Sunday.

The Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF) said the number of offensive messages was so great that Twitter should have found it easy to block them via keyword filters. "We ask the big platforms to do what is necessary. They should stop thinking that their legal norms are above the norms of countries," UEJF president Noemie Madar said. Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

'Filthy remarks'
Three associations-UEJF, SOS Racisme and SOS Homophobie-had in May filed a legal complaint against Twitter, accusing it of failing to moderate content properly. Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti meanwhile said prosecution of the authors of hate messages would become easier once a draft law against extremism is approved. "Their filthy remarks sent from their living room sofas will lead them into a courtroom the very next day," he said in a tweet.

But Madar of the UEJF said the authors of anonymous tweets were usually hard to locate, giving them a sense of impunity. France, which has the biggest Jewish population in Europe, has seen an increase in anti-Semitic vandalism and hate speech that President Emmanuel Macron has called "unacceptable." In 2018, the number of anti-Jewish offences reported to police surged by 74 percent after two years of declines, according to the interior ministry. - AFP