Politicians back French minister in racism row
French politicians on the left and right defended Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux on Sunday after a court convicted him of racial insults, while others called for him to resign.
A Paris court on Friday fined Hortefeux 750 euros (900 dollars) and ordered him to pay 2,000 euros in damages for comments he made last September about a young activist of the right-wing UMP party of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The junior minister for sports, Rama Yade, who is black, said on the station Radio J on Sunday: "Brice Hortefeux is not racist. He has never made me feel the slightest racism."
She added that she did not think there were any racist ministers in Sarkozy's government. "I have not seen or encountered any," she said.
In a filmed encounter in September, Hortefeux was heard to say: "When there's one, it's OK. It's when there are a lot of them that there are problems," apparently referring to a young man of Algerian parentage.
Hortefeux denied his comments referred to the man's race and the young man himself told the newspaper Le Monde that the minister's comments had been taken out of context.
Hortefeux has vowed to appeal his conviction, but a leading lawmaker of the opposition Socialists, Pierre Moscovici, insisted he step down, reiterating the party's call after Friday's ruling.
"Brice Hortefeux has no place in a government of the Republic as interior minister when he makes racist remarks," Moscovici said on Radio J, but added: "One thing I know... Nicolas Sarkozy will decide to trust him."
Hortefeux, 52, was Sarkozy's immigration minister from 2007 to 2009. As interior minister he is now in charge of security in urban zones where tensions between authorities and largely immigrant populations often run high.
Sarkozy has defended Hortefeux in the controversy, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon issued a statement in support of the minister following the verdict.
The court did not hand down a criminal conviction since it judged that Hortefeux had not intended the comments to be heard in public, but found him guilty of a lesser offence of racial insult.
Another high-profile Socialist, lawmaker Julien Dray, who co-founded the anti-racism campaign group SOS Racisme, defended Hortefeux against the charge on Sunday.
"I don't consider that Mr Hortefeux is racist. He is a minister of the Republic... (who) made an unacceptable comment," Dray told radio station Europe 1. "The public debate needs to be more serious than this kind of media frenzy."
Former Socialist minister Michel Charasse, who like Hortefeux was a lawmaker for the central Auvergne region, also stuck up for the minister and complained that unseen media microphones posed a hazard to politicians.
"There are no racist politicians in the Puy-de-Dome (department of Auvergne). This has to stop," he said on Europe 1.
© 2010 AFP