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.
He insisted that he said ils (they) should get back to Africa not il (he) should, referring to the back MP who was speaking when he made the comment.
The 15-day suspension is the strongest sanction available to the Assemblée nationale, and this is only the second time that it has been imposed since 1958.
The comment was made during the Thursday parliamentary sessions, when Carlos Martens Bilongo of the leftist La France insoumise party (LFI) was questioning the government on the request by the SOS Mediterranee NGO for Paris’s help in finding a port for 234 migrants rescued at sea in recent days.
“They should go back to Africa!” interrupted Gregoire de Fournas, a newly elected member of the far-right, anti-immigration Rassemblement National (RN).
"Qu'il(s) retourne(nt) en Afrique"
l'Assemblée met fin à la séance des questions au Gouvernement après une interpellation raciste pic.twitter.com/CZj4slhXu7
— BFMTV (@BFMTV) November 3, 2022
The outburst sparked yells of condemnation, not least because in French the pronouns il (he) and ils (they) are pronounced the same, suggesting that de Fournas might have been targeting Bilongo directly and yelling ‘he should go back to Africa’.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne condemned the comments, adding: “Racism has no place in our democracy.”
Sickening and worrying. A French far-right MP yelled at NUPES MP Carlos Martens Bilongo to "return to Africa". The Assembly was shocked. The session was suspended. pic.twitter.com/xh9DnlcyLF
— Rim-Sarah Alouane (@RimSarah) November 3, 2022
The RN is the party of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who backed her MP on Twitter by saying “the controversy created by our political opponents is obvious and will not fool the French people”.
Le Pen challenged Macron in this year’s presidential vote and then led her party to its best-ever performance in subsequent legislative elections, with 89 MPs.
The party was founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen but his daughter claims to have overhauled the former National Front into a mainstream force, despite critics who say the changes are only cosmetic.
National Assembly speaker Yael Braun-Pivet suspended the session after demanding to know who had made the comment, in an extremely rare intervention.
De Fournas later defended his comment, telling BFM television that the RN wants a halt to all illegal immigration after a surge in the number of people trying to reach France from Africa in recent years.
He accused LFI opponents of “manipulation” and his party also denied any personal attack against Bilongo, a teacher of Congolese heritage who was born in Paris.
De Fournas later apologised to Bilongo for “the misunderstanding my comments caused” and if he was hurt by them.
LFI leader Jean-Luc Melenchon tweeted that the comments were “beyond intolerable” and that the deputy should be kicked out of the National Assembly.
A parliamentary committee will meet Friday to discuss the incident, which could see de Fournas punished with a temporary exclusion from the Assembly.
Macron’s centrist Renaissance party will refuse to attend further sessions unless the council issues a “heavy penalty”, its vice-president in parliament Sylvain Maillard said on Twitter.
Le racisme n’a aucune place dans notre démocratie.
Salir ainsi les débats au sein de notre hémicycle, comme l’a fait le @RNational_off, est injustifiable !
— 🇨🇵🇪🇺 Sylvain Maillard (@SylvainMaillard) November 3, 2022
The ruling party failed to win an overall majority in the legislative elections, leading to tensions as Macron’s government seeks to push key bills through the legislature.