PARIS (AP) — A French far-right lawmaker has been suspended from the country's parliament for 15 days, the maximum penalty, after he made a racist remark during a legislative session, which prompted condemnation from across the political spectrum.
Gregoire de Fournas of the far-right National Rally party was heard shouting the words "return to Africa” at his fellow lawmaker as Carlos Martens Bilongo, who is Black, was challenging the French government on Thursday about migrants stranded at sea.
Bilongo said he was “deeply hurt” by the remark.
Other politicians, including France’s president, said they were shocked by de Fournas’ remark, which raised new questions about xenophobia on the far right and in other parts of French society.
His words prompted an immediate uproar in the National Assembly, leading the legislative chamber's president to suspend the session.
Members of the National Assembly’s managing body said Friday they unanimously to give de Fournas the maximum penalty, 15 days of suspension. De Fournas tweeted that he is “innocent” and feels the decision is "very unfair."
Due to acoustic issues, it was unclear whether de Fournas said Bilongo should return to Africa or the migrants should.
De Fournas said he was referring to Europe-bound migrants rescued at sea and not to his fellow lawmaker.
“I fully stand by my comments about the anarchic migratory policies of our country,” he tweeted Friday.
French anti-racism groups stressed that either way, the remark echoed the familiar invective of Black people being told to go back to Africa, regardless of where they were born or held citizenship.
French group SOS Racisme called it "the true face of the far-right: that of racism.” The group's president, Dominique Sopo, said no matter what de Fournas said exactly, “obviously, they are extremely violent comments.”
Bilongo, a member of the far-left France Unbowed party, took part in a gathering Friday near the National Assembly called by his party in a show of support.
“I’m torn between joy and sadness,” Bilongo said. “Because I received many messages of support overnight ... because I see all these faces here showing solidarity with me.”
Bilongo said he received thousands of messages following the incident from people telling him that they hear similar comments in their daily lives. He praised the immediate reaction of anger shown by a large majority of lawmakers from across the political spectrum.
The Movement against Racism and for Friendship between People described de Fournas' remark as “revolting.”
“The National Rally remains, despite some efforts to normalize this far-right party, deeply racist and xenophobic,” it said.
The Elysee presidential palace said French President Emmanuel Macron was shocked by words he considered “unacceptable in or outside" the assembly.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he was “extremely shocked," telling BFM TV it was the first time in his 15 years of political life that he heard such “ignominious” words in parliament.
The National Rally is the party of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who lost her third bid for the French presidency to Macron in April. Still, France's subsequent legislative election led to a major breakthrough for the party, which won 89 seats in the 577-member National Assembly, up from eight.
Le Pen tweeted that de Fournas was “obviously speaking about the migrants transported in ships by NGOs."
“The controversy created by our political adversaries is gross and won't deceive the French,” she said.
In the past decade, Le Pen has sought to make her party more palatable to the mainstream right, striving to remove the stigma of racism and antisemitism that clung to the party under her now-ostracized father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The National Rally's members are to gather Saturday in Paris to choose a new party head. Le Pen has said she plans to focus on leading the party's lawmakers in the National Assembly.
Sylvie Corbet, The Associated Press