By Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) - The French National Assembly on Friday cut the pay of a far-right lawmaker and temporarily banned him from the chamber for shouting "Go back to Africa!" as a Black legislator was speaking during a parliamentary session.
The remark by Gregoire de Fournas, a lawmaker from Marine Le Pen's opposition National Rally (RN), while left-wing MP Carlos Martens Bilongo was asking a question on immigration, triggered an uproar on Thursday, bringing the day's session to a halt.
France's centrist government, the left and the mainstream right said the remark was an unacceptable racist slur.
The far right denied that de Fournas had aimed his words at Martens Bilongo, saying he was referring to migrants from Africa currently stranded on an NGO boat in the Mediterranean, and that there was nothing wrong with that.
"Free democratic debate does not allow everything... and especially not racism, whoever the target is," National Assembly President Yael Braun-Pivet said after the assembly voted for the sanctions, with all but RN lawmakers in favour of the move.
De Fournas will lose half of his salary for two months and will be banned from entering the assembly for 15 days. It was only the second such sanction imposed by the parliament.
Martens Bilongo, from the leftist France Unbowed party, had called for tough action over what he called "shameful" comments.
Hundreds of protesters had gathered in front of parliament on Friday ahead of the sanctions decision.
"I am Black, such words have been targeted at me before," 19-year-old law student Pedro Filipe said at the rally, "and for me to hear them in the National Assembly, it's shocking. It must be the last time."
Le Pen and her party - the second largest in the assembly with 89 lawmakers - rejected accusations of racism and instead accused their opponents of misrepresenting what de Fournas said.
He "obviously spoke about the migrants transported in boats by the NGOs. The controversy created by our political opponents ... will not deceive the French," she said on Thursday. On Friday, Le Pen said the sanctions against de Fournas amounted to a violation of his right to free expression.
Le Pen has made significant progress over the past few years in detoxifying her party's image and convincing voters it has moved towards the conservative mainstream, and she had urged her MPs to help continue this by projecting a more moderate image.
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.
"Mrs Le Pen has still not told this MP to leave, so she is complicit," Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
(Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Myriam Rivet, Dominique Vidalon; writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Mark Heinrich)