France's far-right National Front dropped a candidate for municipal elections on Friday after she compared the country's black justice minister to a monkey.
The anti-immigration eurosceptic party led by Marine Le Pen is desperately seeking a makeover to broaden its voter appeal and dispel its xenophobic image and is tipped to be the leading French party in European elections also due next year, according to a new poll.
But the party suffered a set up back in its attempts to clean up its image when Anne-Sophie Leclere, who was due to be a far-right National Front candidate in next year's local elections in the region of Ardennes, northern France, was suspended by the party after comparing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey.
France 2 television on Thursday revealed a photo montage Leclere had posted on her Facebook page, showing a baby monkey, with a caption underneath reading “At 18 months”, alongside Taubira – who is black – with the caption “Now.”
Leclere published the image on her Facebook page on August 31st, but has since deleted it on the advice of friends, according to France 2.
During a documentary entitled “The new faces of the National Front?”, Leclere was confronted with the image, but defended publishing it, repeatedly insisting Taubira was “une sauvage”, which can translate as "wild animal" or "savage".
“Honestly, she’s a wild animal, coming on TV with that devil’s smile,” said Leclere.
“I’d prefer to see her swinging from a tree than in government,” she added, denying that she or the photo were racist, claiming “I have friends who are black.”
Leclere, who will face a disciplinary hearing, defended herself on Friday afternoon, saying: "I did not make racist remarks even though my comments on television were clumsy."
She said the photo-montage was a "joke" and added: "The photo was posted on my Facebook page and I took it off a few days later. I was not the creator of
"I have received several messages of support," she added.
For now, Leclere has not lost her membership of the National Front, but “her candidacy has been suspended,” pending a disciplinary hearing, party spokesman Steve Brioos said on Friday.
After coming under fire National Front bosses explained that Leclere’s candidacy was just a “casting error” and it had been quickly rectified.
“We will be more careful in the future. I just had Marine Le Pen on the phone and she told me if we need to check things ten times then we must do it,” said the National Front’s Vice President Florian Philippot.
Philippot added that he refused to take lessons from other political parties who have their own “black sheep”.
(Marine Le Pen and Anne Sophie Leclere. Screengrab Facebook)
The scandal comes at a time when efforts by National Front leader Marine Le Pen to clean up the image of the party appeared to have been yielding results, following their shock by-election victory in Brignoles last week.
The party, once universally-regarded as anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic, has undergone a project of "dédiabolisation" ("un-demonising") since Le Pen took over as leader from her father Jean-Marie in 2011.
Indeed, Le Pen recently went so far as to deny the party was "of the extreme right," and threatened legal action against journalists who labelled them as such. The plausibility of Le Pen's claim, however, will take a hit from today's racism debacle.
"This is completely scandalous," Aline Le Bail-Kremer from anti-racism group SOS Racisme told The Local on Friday.
"Marine Le Pen has been giving us all a good lecture on how her party isn't extremist, or racist, or anti-Semitic or homophobic. But once again, we see this from their members," she added.
Last month another National Front election candidate was suspended after posting a picture of a burning Israeli flag on his Facebook profile.
Here's a short video of Leclere being confronted with the image by a France 2 journalist. The exchange is in French, but the then National Front candidate can be seen enthusiastically admitting she posted it, before launching into something of a tirade, calling Taubira a "wild animal", and condemning her "devil's smile."