France’s National Assembly has voted to sanction a far-right MP with a rare 15-day suspension and pay cut after he yelled “back to Africa” at a black colleague, a clash that drew outrage across the political spectrum.
Gregoire de Fournas, a newly elected member of the National Rally, has denied any personal racist attack in the outburst, saying he was referring to a ship carrying rescued migrants in the Mediterranean.
The penalty urged by the council of the lower-house National Assembly is the harshest possible under its rules, which broadly uphold free speech for MPs while in session.
It was only the second time in the history of France’s Fifth Republic, established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, that an MP had received such a rebuke.
The incident came as tensions over immigration are running high, with President Emmanuel Macron’s government promising a new crackdown amid accusations of failing to stem new arrivals or deport those whose residency requests are denied.
Carlos Martens Bilongo of the leftist France Unbowed party (LFI) was questioning the government on the request by the SOS Mediterranee NGO for Paris’s help in finding a port for the ship that rescued 234 migrants at sea in recent days.
“It should go back to Africa!” interrupted de Fournas, a winegrower from the southwestern Gironde department, drawing gasps of shock from many in parliament.
In French, pronunciation is the same for the pronouns “it” and “he”, which suggested to some that de Fournas was targeting Bilongo directly.
“Racism, no matter its target, is a negation of the republican values that unite us in this assembly,” its president Yael Braun-Pivet said after the vote.