French minister to face court in racism row

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French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has been summoned to court to answer racism accusations over a film that shows him making what seem to be anti-Arab comments, a lawyer said on Tuesday.

The MRAP anti-racism group accuses Hortefeux of "racial insults" over the video taken at the summer congress of President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party earlier this month, which sparked calls for him to resign.

The group took legal action under a fast-track, simplified procedure that allows a plaintiff to summon a defendant directly before a judge.

A lawyer for the MRAP, Pierre Mairat, said the Paris criminal court had agreed to hold a first audience on 17 December on the case. The interior ministry did not confirm or deny that the minister had been summoned to court.

The film posted on the Internet shows Hortefeux posing with a man of Arab origin, saying: "There always has to be one. When there's one, it's OK."

"It's when there are a lot of them that there are problems."

The man, referred to as Amine, is seen in the middle of a small group of laughing party activists, including a woman who can be heard saying: "He eats pork, he drinks beer."

Hortefeux replies: "He doesn't correspond at all to the prototype."

The MRAP's case against Hortefeux centres both on the use of the term "prototype" and the minister's apparent suggestion that a large number of Arab immigrants pose a problem for society.

"That excludes Arab people from our social contract," said the lawyer.

Sarkozy has admitted that the remarks were "clumsy" but insisted that Hortefeux, who is a longtime friend and ally, is not racist.

Hortefeux later voiced regret at an event held by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but insisted his comments were taken out of context and stopped short of an apology.

Court cases involving serving French ministers are normally heard by the Court of Justice of the Republic.

But the MRAP's lawyer said he believed that the Paris court has the jurisdiction to hear the case, arguing that Hortefeux was at the congress in his capacity as vice-president of the UMP's national council, not as minister.

Racial insults are punishable in France by up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of EUR 22,500 (USD 33,800).


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