France's National Assembly voted Friday 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 Thursday 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.
- 'Totally innocent' -
The punishment comes as the RN prepares to vote Saturday on a successor to its 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 has been working for years to shed her party's extremist views and prove it can unite voters and govern as a mainstream party.
Le Pen challenged President Emmanuel Macron in this year's presidential vote and then led her party to its best-ever performance in subsequent legislative elections, with 89 MPs.
While acknowledging a "gaffe" by de Fournas, she told journalists Friday that "if a comment that lacks finesse justifies a suspension from parliament, there's room for plenty of others" in the assembly.
De Fournas, who left the chamber immediately after the vote, reacted on Twitter saying "I am totally innocent... but respectful of the institution, and I accept" its decision.
Bilongo responded by telling BFM television that "I have always been deeply convinced the RN is racist, and this only proves it once again."
The 27-year-old Jordan Bardella is the overwhelming favourite to win the party leadership Saturday over his only rival Louis Aliot, a party veteran and former partner of Le Pen.
By stepping down as party chief, Le Pen will focus on presiding the RN group in parliament, where she will could have a powerful platform for a potential fourth run at the presidency in 2027.