PARIS - A magazine with a front page comparing a black government minister to a monkey hit newstands in France on Wednesday, despite legal objections and a nationwide outcry over the racist slur.

Amid mounting concern over recent incidents of racist abuse in public life, the far-right satirical weekly Minute went on sale with a cover featuring a picture of Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and headlines which read: “Crafty as a monkey”. The text is deliberately ambiguous: the term ‘crafty as a monkey’ in French can be used as praise.

But the provocative cover page was also an obvious reference to two other recent cases of Taubira being publicly likened to a monkey, incidents which have triggered much soul-searching among liberal commentators over a perceived surge in intolerance.

Taubira herself warned last week that the country’s social cohesion was under threat from a disintegration of long-standing taboos on the expression of overtly racist ideas.

Minute’s front page provoked an outcry amongst politicians across the mainstream political spectrum with many of them calling for the magazine’s editor and publisher to be prosecuted for incitement of racial hatred.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault registered a formal complaint with the Paris prosecutor over the contents of the magazine.

The move triggered the opening of a preliminary investigation but, in light of France’s strong tradition of freedom of expression, legal experts indicated there was little the government could do to prevent the 40,000 copies of the magazine that have been printed from reaching the public.

A spokesman for the distributor, Presstalis, said it could only block the magazine’s distribution on the basis of a court order, which had not been issued.

Taubira is a hate figure for some on the right in French politics, partly as she was the minister responsible for the legalisation of gay marriage earlier this year.

At the end of last month, a group of children attending an anti-Taubira/anti-gay marriage demonstration were filmed chanting “monkey, eat your banana”.

That came shortly after an electoral candidate of the National Front (FN) was expelled from her far-right party for writing on her Facebook page that she would prefer to see the minister “swinging from the branches rather than in government”.

Taubira’s government colleague Yamina Benguigui on Wednesday described such abuse as “worthy of the Ku Klux Klan”.

“Today it is a verbal lynching, tomorrow what will it be?” the minister for relations with other French-speaking countries told Nice Matin. “I never thought I would hear the things I am hearing today.”