In a blog posting, the top candidate on the National Front’s electoral list in Paris’s posh 6th arrondissement lashed out at the presence of Roma people in his district and offered up a solution that has caused outrage among anti-racism campaigners.
Paul-Marie Coûteaux, a candidate for Marine Le Pen's "FN-Rassemblement Blue Marine" party, wrote in his February 19th post: “But what can the Minister of the Interior do–apart from concentrating these foreign people in camps–where life would undoubtedly be so below what they counted on that they would prefer to flee such inhospitable territory?”
The comments were naturally seized upon by ant-racism campaigners in a country which has often been criticized for its policy of mass deportations of Roma, which reached record levels last year.
In a statement SOS Racism denounced "Coûteaux's "vile words" and announced it would press charges of racism in the coming days "in light of the severity and wretchedness of this anti-republican text."
His words also provoked outrage among Twitter users. "Apart from this the National Front are not racist hey? Paul-Marie Coûteaux wants to replay the night of the long knives," wrote one of the many tweeters who compared his words to Hitler's policies.
— Vanessa Eun Mi (@VanessaEunMi) March 4, 2014
After the fallout Coûteaux tried to explain the comments when reached by AFP.
“There is no point in this text where I call for the construction of camps, barbwire. It’s in the form of a question,” Couteaux told the press agency. For their part the National Front blamed the press for provoking the controversy.
National Front election threat
The ensuing anger his comments drew online and in the French press came just weeks before municipal elections are to be held across the country.
There are concerns the National Front, with its anti-immigrant and anti-Europe stance, could put up a strong showing as it attempts to continue its recent march towards mainstream power.
Party head Marine Le Pen has been desperately trying to build a more palatable image for the party. The party, once universally regarded as anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic, has undergone a project of "dédiabolisation" ("un-demonizing") since Le Pen took over as leader in 2011.
She is frequently quoted and interviewed by major French news outlets and has worn some of the edges off the party founded by her father, extreme right firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen.
However, her efforts are regularly challenged by National Front members or affiliates who have a tendency to unleash offensive gaffes in public.
'I'd prefer to see her hanging from a tree'
In October Anne-Sophie Leclere, who was due to run on the party’s ticket in the northern French region of Ardennes in March, was suspended by the party after comparing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, to a monkey in a Facebook post.
The post included a photo montage of a baby monkey, with the caption “18 months”, next to an image of Taubira with “now” written below it. Leclere attempted to explain the post to a TV news reporter.
“Honestly, she’s a wild animal, coming on TV with that devil’s smile,” Leclere told France TV.
“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.”
Only last month another National Front candidate was barred from running for election after it was discovered he had a tatoo honouring a unit of Hitler's SS division that operated in France.
Critics say this type of incident and the words of candidates such as Coûteaux reveal the true colours of the National Front's members.
"Concentrating Roma in camps,… yes the National Front has changed… or not! It's the same old shop, again and again," Tweeted Damien Toumi.
— Damien Toumi (@Damien_Crane) March 4, 2014
Despite the many pitfalls of trying to rein in extremist candidates, Le Pen’s efforts have paid some dividends.
A public opinion poll released last month showed 34 percent of French people agreed with the National Front’s ideas, which was it’s highest rates of acceptance since the mid-1980s.