France: MP told to 'go back to Africa' in parliament says racism growing across Europe
When Carlos Martens Bilongo, a French parliamentarian, stood up in the national assembly this month to urge the country to help 234 migrants stranded at sea in the Mediterranean, a far-right MP shouted: "Let him go back to Africa."
Gasps rippled across the parliament, with Bilongo's colleagues immediately calling the comment racist and demanding that Gregoire de Fournas, a newly elected member of the anti-immigration National Rally (RN), be kicked out.
Bilongo himself calmly retorted: "No way!"
Even by French standards, such open racism was shocking, and parliament was quickly suspended.
Speaking to Middle East Eye, Bilongo, a 31-year-old French teacher turned politician for the leftist France Unbowed party (LFI), called the comment "not good for French people and France's image internationally".
It's not hard to see why. The comment not only drew condemnation from large parts of French society but also grabbed international headlines.
'There is racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in French society, and the French parliament is also a reflection of French society'
- Carlos Martens Bilongo, French parliamentarian
"The comment made me feel sad," said Bilongo recalling the incident in his first interview outside France.
"I was shocked to hear such language in the French parliament. However, I stayed calm and didn't move. It was so terrible to hear that."
Born and raised in Val-d'Oise, northern France, to parents of Congolese and Angolan origin, Bilongo said the racist comment speaks to a growing and more strident discourse amongst the far right, now the third-largest party in parliament.
"I was talking about the situation in the Mediterranean on the request of the SOS Mediterranee, an NGO that had rescued 234 migrants for which Italian authorities had refused safe passage, when the extremist white nationalist member spoke out," said Bilongo.
"The French parliament is not normally like that - just the white nationalists are like that."
RN, formerly known as the National Front, or FN, headed by the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, won a record number of seats in parliament when legislative elections were held in June.
Having won only eight seats in 2017, RN now has 89. That growing confidence from its numbers is now also being expressed in parliament.
Le Pen backing
Bilongo is unbowed and does not underestimate the challenge ahead.
"The problem is Europe-wide, not one contained in a single country. You have extremist nationalist parties in Italy, France and Austria, but not only there," he said.
The new far-right, populist government in Italy led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has made it a point to take a hard line against migrants.
It was the decision of Meloni's government's to stop migrants rescued in the Mediterranean from landing in Italy, violating international law, that led Bilongo to call for the French government to step in and save them.
On 10 November, a week after the racist comment was levelled at Bilongo, the French government relented and allowed the migrants to dock.
While French politicians condemned the openly racist remark, Le Pen backed de Fournas. The leader said the parliamentarian wasn't telling Bilongo to go back to Africa; rather, he meant the migrants should go back to the continent.
The official parliamentary record of the conversion says otherwise.
Don't forget the past
In tackling the far right in France and beyond, Bilongo believes we should forget about the anti-racism struggles of the past. The way forward, he said, "is that we should not forget the past".
"I remember Rosa Parks, the American civil rights campaigner - she didn't go to the back of the bus to make way for white racism," said Bilongo.
"This time, a white parliamentarian says to me, 'go back to Africa' - I won't go back.
"I was born and raised here. This is my country. I will fight for unity and the universality of humanity for all people."
Bilongo is cautious, however, of painting all RN voters as supporters of Le Pen's far-right ideology. It is not a monolithic group, he believes, but a patchwork of disgruntled voters who feel left behind by their representatives.
"There is racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in French society, and the French parliament is also a reflection of French society," said Bilongo.
"However, a lot of French people have become disenchanted with the country's politics" and, in protest at the direction of the country, Bilongo argues, have seen Le Pen as the only avenue for a protest vote.
"During the elections, people who didn't like capitalism or had other social grievances" voted for Le Pen, but that "should not be equated as being a fan of her and her more radical policies", he said.
The way forward
Politicians like Le Pen have been adept at exploiting the growing political disenchantment in the country. The antidote to the rising far right is to make people feel engaged in politics and that it can work for them, said Bilongo.
"The only solution is an extensive mobilisation of the population to explain the dangers and the consequences of having the extreme right in power," he said.
While in recent years, increasing numbers of people from minority backgrounds have broken through in French politics, Bilongo believes that such racist comments will only strengthen the will of young people looking to enter politics.
"Yes, they are shocked, but they want to change things by getting more involved in politics," he said.
"There is no magic solution [to the far right], it doesn't exist... So we have to take this fight head-on, and with like-minded people we can fight this together."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.