PARIS — A Black lawmaker in France said Friday he was “deeply hurt” by a racist remark a far-right member of the French parliament made during a legislative session, a comment that has received 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 was challenging the French government Thursday about migrants stranded at sea.
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 and launch an investigation. A meeting of the National Assembly’s managing body was set for Friday afternoon to discuss potential sanctions.
Due to the uproar and the muffling of the words, 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, as some understood, 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 that no matter what de Fournas exactly said, “obviously, they are extremely violent comments.”
Speaking Friday on French news broadcaster BFM TV, Bilongo called for de Fournas’ resignation.
He said he received thousands of messages following the incident from people telling him that they hear similar comments in their daily lives. The words “speak to many French who felt hurt,” Bilongo said.
Bilongo, a member of the hard-left France Unbowed, 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 praised the immediate reaction of anger shown by a large majority of lawmakers from across the political spectrum.
The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism condemned the comment as “disgusting” and showing “blatant inhumanity.”
The Movement against Racism and for Friendship between People, or MRAP, described the 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 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 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. The subsequent legislative elections led to a major breakthrough for the party, which won 89 seats in the 577-member National Assembly, up from a previous total of 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 scheduled to gather Saturday in Paris to choose the new head of the party. Le Pen has said she plans to focus on leading the party’s lawmakers in the National Assembly.