Paris - Members of France's ruling UMP party stormed out of Parliament in protest on Wednesday after an opposition legislator appeared to compare Interior Minister Claude Gueant to a Nazi for remarks he made that not all civilisations were equal.
Serge Letchimy, a Socialist ally representing the Caribbean island of Martinique, accused Gueant of trying to woo potential far-right voters, 10 weeks before the presidential election, in remarks made to students at the weekend.
“You are dragging us back day by day to those European ideologies which gave birth to the concentration camps,” Letchimy said to howls of protest. “Mr Gueant, the Nazi regime - so worried about purification - was that a civilisation?”
His remarks prompted lawmakers on the government side of the National Assembly's semicircular chamber to abandon their red leather benches and flock to the exit, led by Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
The political storm over Gueant's remarks underlines tensions over Socialist accusations that the ruling conservative party's hard line on immigration and Muslim issues is aimed at pleasing far-right voters.
With National Front leader Marine Le Pen running third in opinion polls with 15 to 20 percent support, her votes could be decisive in the runoff between the two first-round leaders.
Sarkozy is trailing Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande by eight percentage points for the April 22 election, according to a survey released on Monday by pollster BVA, and could beat him by 14 points if they face off in a May 6 runoff.
Letchimy, a member of the Martinican Progressive Party, accused Gueant of pandering “to a dark France which cultivates nostalgia for that era.”
Legislators hurled jibes, gestured and heckled across the chamber and ushers in their formal black suits and white bow ties formed a line separating the two sides.
In a statement after the incident, Fillon called on opposition leaders to condemn what he called “an indecent provocation”.
“There are comparisons which shame those who make them,” he said. “France is a democracy, a legal state in which freedom of expression should not be used to smear a political rival.”
Gueant was one of President Nicolas Sarkozy's closest aides for years before he was made interior minister a year ago.
The opposition Socialist Party was quick to denounce Gueant's remarks at the weekend, in which he also condemned “left-wing relativist ideology”. - Reuters