PARIS — A black lawmaker said on Friday he was “deeply hurt” after a far-right member of French parliament made a racist remark during a legislative session, prompting condemnation from across the political spectrum.
The comments shocked many, including the French president himself, and raised new questions about xenophobia on the far right and in other parts of French society.
Grégoire de Fournas of the far-right National Rally party was heard shouting the words “return to Africa” at lawmaker Carlos Martens Bilongo, who was challenging the government on Thursday about migrants stranded at sea.
These comments caused an immediate outcry in the legislature, leading the president of the National Assembly to suspend the session and launch an investigation. A meeting of the Assembly’s governing body has been set for Friday afternoon to decide on possible sanctions.
Due to the uproar and muffled words, it was unclear whether de Fournas had said that Bilongo should return to Africa or that the migrants should.
French anti-racism groups have pointed out that, regardless of the target, the comments echo a racist slur towards black people who are being told to return to Africa.
The French group SOS Racisme called him “the true face of the far right: that of racism”. Its president, Dominique Sopo, said “obviously these are extremely violent comments”, no matter what de Fournas was saying specifically.
Speaking on French news channel BFM TV on Friday, Bilongo called for de Fournas to resign.
He said he received thousands of messages following the incident from people telling him they were hearing similar comments in their daily lives. The words “speak to many French people who have felt hurt,” Bilongo said.
Bilongo, who is from the far-left France Unbowed party, welcomed the immediate angry reaction shown by a large majority of lawmakers from all political backgrounds.
The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism condemned the comments as “disgusting” and showing “blatant inhumanity”.
De Fournas said he was referring to migrants at sea and not, as some have understood, his fellow lawmaker. “I fully stand by my comments on the anarchic migration policies of our country,” he tweeted on Friday.
France Insoumis called for a rally on Friday near the National Assembly to support Bilongo.
The Elysee Palace said President Emmanuel Macron was shocked by the “unacceptable inside or outside” remarks from the assembly.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he was “extremely shocked”, told BFM TV and that it was the first time in 15 years of political life that he had heard such “ignominious” words in the body .
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. The ensuing parliamentary elections led to a major breakthrough for the party, which won 89 seats in the lower house of parliament, which has 577 members, up from a previous total of eight.
Le Pen tweeted that de Fournas was “obviously talking about migrants being transported by boat by NGOs”.
“The controversy created by our political adversaries is crude and will not deceive the French,” she said.