French senator accused of ‘crass racism’ after racist jibe at protesters

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One of the most senior figures in France’s mainstream right-wing party was accused of “crass racism” on Wednesday after claiming that immigrant-origin people who took part in riots over the past week had undergone “a regression to their ethnic roots.”

Bruno Retailleau, who heads the Republicans party in the Senate, was responding to a question about the identities of the people who have burned cars and clashed with police during the country’s worst riots since 2005.

Although many of them were black or of north African origin, sparking calls for tighter curbs on immigration, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told parliament on Tuesday that 90 percent of the people arrested since last Tuesday were French citizens.

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“OK, they’re French, but these are French people in their official identity, and unfortunately for the second and third generations (of immigrants), there is a sort of regression towards their ethnic roots,” Retailleau told Franceinfo radio.

He also criticized plans by President Emmanuel Macron to accelerate the payment of money to local authorities to help rebuild public buildings that he said were burned down by “savage people” — a racially loaded term.

“It’s a double blow for French people: they have paid already and now we’re going to need to rebuild because these savage people have set fire to them,” he said.

The parliamentary head of the hard-left France Unbowed party, Mathilde Panot, denounced a “crass racism,” while fellow MP Clementine Autain said that “these people, oozing racism, dare give lessons about good republican behavior.”

The comments from Retailleau, a conservative who has sought his party’s presidential nomination in the past, underscore the increasingly shrill debate about immigration and identity in France.

The Republicans party, which traces its roots to postwar hero Charles de Gaulle and has provided presidents from Jacques Chirac to Nicolas Sarkozy, has veered sharply rightwards under its new tough-talking leader Eric Ciotti.

It has been eclipsed by France’s far right for much of the last decade, with veteran anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen attaining her highest score ever in presidential elections last year.

The virulently anti-Islam media commentator Eric Zemmour, who has likened the riots to an “ethnic war,” has also emerged as a political competitor.

The riots began last Tuesday after the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old of Algerian origin during a traffic stop by police, reviving longstanding complaints about police brutality and racism in deprived areas of the country.

Darmanin, a right-winger in Macron’s centrist cabinet, told parliament on Tuesday that “we don’t want hatred of the police, or hatred of foreigners.”

“In this terrible moment for our country, we need to remember that the republic is a balance: Yes, order and firmness. Yes, order that is just, but not order alone.”

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