A far-right member of the French parliament has been sanctioned by a disciplinary panel for shouting out “Go back to Africa!” when a black MP was speaking about the dangers faced by migrants attempting sea crossings to Europe.
The episode caused a ruckus in the National Assembly late on Thursday with the session being suspended. Politicians from across the spectrum, including Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, expressed outrage over what they called a racist incident and many called on the MP to resign.
The incident is a setback for the Rassemblement National (National Rally) and its leader Marine Le Pen, who has sought to clean up the racist image of the party, which her father founded, in a drive to win more mainstream support.
Grégoire de Fournas, a newly elected MP, defended himself by saying he was talking about the boats and migrants rather than Carlos Martens Bilongo, his fellow MP. Bilongo was calling on France to increase co-operation with EU countries in assisting African migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea.
Bilongo, who represents a district north of Paris, said he felt targeted for the colour of his skin and demanded that de Fournas resign. “It is shameful,” he said. “The RN shows its true face.”
De Fournas was judged by a 22-member panel of parliamentary leaders on Friday, who imposed the maximum penalty of a 15-day suspension and a temporary pay cut. It was only the second time such a sanction has been issued. After the panel hearing, De Fournas said on Twitter that he was “totally innocent of the allegations” but would “obey” the sanctions.
Before the hearing, De Fournas sent an email to Bilongo, from the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, in an effort to explain himself: “I am very sorry about the incomprehension that my words caused, deplore the political manipulation that is being made of them, and regret if you felt hurt,” he wrote.
The incident has shaken Le Pen and her party, which has been in the ascendancy since June when it won an unprecedented 89 seats in the National Assembly, more than 10 times its number the previous term. The result made the National Rally the biggest single opposition party and contributed to the loss of the centrist alliance’s majority, potentially hobbling President Emmanuel Macron’s legislative agenda in his second term.
The spat around de Fournas, a winemaker from the Bordeaux region where the National Rally has a solid base of support among poorer voters, comes ahead of a party congress on Saturday at which a new leader will be elected. The candidates are Jordan Bardella, acting party leader and member of the European parliament, and Louis Aliot, the mayor of Perpignan. Both are Le Pen loyalists and are not expected to challenge her control over the party.
Le Pen, in a tweet, showed her support for her MP’s version of the incident: “The controversy created by our political adversaries is coarse and will not fool the French.”
She later dismissed the sanction pronounced against de Fournas as a politically motivated decision made by the National Rally’s opponents. “It is contrary to democracy and the freedom of expression.”