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.
"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.
The comment by Gregoire de Fournas, a lawmaker from Marine Le Pen's opposition National Rally (RN), as left-wing MP Carlos Martens Bilongo was speaking, triggered an uproar on Thursday and brought the lower house of parliament to a halt.
The centrist government, the left and the mainstream right said the remark was an unacceptable racist slur.
The penalty by 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.
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.
Before the suspension was decided, there was considerable debate about the semantics of de Fournas' utterance.
While many MPs said they heard him say what would in English be translated as a straight "Go back to Africa!", others heard another word at the start of his sentence that would change the meaning to either "He should go back to Africa" or "They should go back to Africa."
The far right argued de Fournas was not aiming the words at Martens Bilongo but rather at migrants currently stranded on an NGO boat in the Mediterranean, and that there was nothing wrong with that.
He "obviously spoke about the migrants transported in boats by the NGOs," Le Pen tweeted on Thursday. "The controversy created by our political opponents...will not deceive the French."
Many in the centrist government and on the left said de Fournas' comments and his party's reaction showed the "true face" of a party they said had not really changed.
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.
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.
This story compiled using date from Reuters and Agence France-Presse