Accusations of Racism Against Lawmaker Roil France’s Parliament

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PARIS — France’s Parliament was in an uproar on Thursday after a far-right lawmaker shouted a comment about going “back to Africa” while a Black colleague was speaking, causing immediate outrage as politicians quickly accused him of racism and denounced the French extreme right for failing to shed its xenophobic roots.

Carlos Martens Bilongo, 31, a Black lawmaker in the lower house for the far-left France Unbowed party, was questioning the government about the plight of migrants who were recently rescued as they crossed the Mediterranean to Europe when another lawmaker, Grégoire de Fournas, of the far-right National Rally party, shouted that someone should “go back to Africa.”

Partly because of a quirk of the French language, which spells the pronouns “he” and “they” differently but pronounces them the same, it was not immediately clear if Mr. de Fournas was referring to Mr. Martens Bilongo, or the migrants and the boat carrying them.

Credit…French National Assembly, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. de Fournas, in keeping with the National Rally’s longstanding and unabashed anti-immigrant platform, later told reporters he was referring to the migrants and specifically to the boat.

But politicians in the National Assembly, France’s lower house, immediately perceived the shout as a racist attack hurled by one elected official at another from the very halls of Parliament.

One lawmaker’s eyes widened with shock and others quickly stood, shouting and pointing at the far-right benches. The session was quickly adjourned — a rare interruption — and lawmakers spilled out of the chamber with a flurry of outraged reactions.

Mathilde Panot, head of the France Unbowed lawmakers in the National Assembly, told reporters that “today the far right has shown its true face,” while Mr. Martens Bilongo said that the comment was “completely disgraceful.”

“I was born in France, I am a French lawmaker, and I didn’t think that today I was going to be insulted in the National Assembly,” said Mr. Martens Bilongo, who represents a district in the Val d’Oise, north of Paris. “I was insulted, as were all people who are in France and have that skin color.”

Condemnation from President Emmanuel Macron’s government was also swift, and lawmakers for his party said that they would not sit in the lower house until Mr. de Fournas was disciplined. The National Assembly’s bureau, a top body that oversees its functioning, is expected to convene on Friday to discuss punishment against him, which could range from docked pay to a temporary suspension.

“Racism has no place in our democracy,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said minutes after the incident, while Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, tweeted that the far right’s “hideous references and vile ways remained.”

Mr. de Fournas said that he would not apologize because his words had been “manipulated.”

He told reporters that he had been referring to the Ocean Viking, a boat carrying the migrants that is operated by SOS Mediterranean, a migrant rescue group that called upon European governments this week to help find a port for 234 people who were rescued while trying to reach Europe.

But Mr. de Fournas also reaffirmed that he and his party were firmly opposed to any arrival of migrants.

“It’s in our platform,” he said, “to stop the role of boats in the Mediterranean that act as migrant smugglers.”

Mr. Martens Bilongo added in a later statement that targeting the migrants was no better than targeting him. “Has racism become so mundane for that phrase to have become acceptable?” he asked.

Marine Le Pen, the National Rally’s longtime leader, defended Mr. de Fournas, writing on Twitter that the controversy was “created by our political adversaries” and “would not fool the French.”

It is not the first time that remarks by a National Rally lawmaker have caused controversy. In June, on the opening day of the new legislature, José Gonzalez, the 79-year-old doyen of the National Assembly and a member of the far-right party, expressed nostalgia for colonial French Algeria and refused to condemn terror attacks carried out by a far-right paramilitary organization opposed to an independent Algeria.

But Thursday’s incident was the biggest blow so far to efforts by Ms. Le Pen to “un-demonize” the party, by distancing it from its racist, antisemitic and xenophobic roots and pivoting instead to bread-and-butter issues like energy prices.

Since seizing a record 89 seats in parliamentary elections in June, the party has avoided excessive jeers or eruptions and refrained from stirring up controversy. Thomas Ménagé, a 30-year-old National Rally lawmaker from central France, said in an interview last month that party lawmakers had received internal orders to “behave irreproachably.”

But Ms. Le Pen has also stuck to many of the party’s hard-line positions, especially on immigration, which she wants to drastically cut.

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.


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