FRANCE RACISM
Laurent Cipriani  /  AP
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux speaks to reporters during his visit to the bomb disposal center in Venissieux, France, on Friday. There were calls for his resignation after he allegedly made anti-Arab comments.
updated 9/11/2009 4:56:29 PM ET 2009-09-11T20:56:29

Cabinet members rushed Friday to defend France's interior minister — a key ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy — amid calls for the man's resignation after he allegedly was caught on camera making anti-Arab remarks.

The incident with Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has caused a stir because he is the top law enforcement official in a country where relations between police and minority youths are often tense.

An Internet video shows Hortefeux at a governing UMP party gathering last weekend in southwest France being photographed with a young party member of North African origin. Voices in the primarily white crowd are heard referring to "integration" and the young man.

"He's Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer," one woman said.

Hortefeux appears to reply: "He doesn't fit the prototype at all, then."

"He's our little Arab," the woman said.

"Very well. We always need one," Hortefeux replied. "When there's one, that's all right. It's when there are a lot of them that there are problems."

'No reference to ethnic origin'
Afterward, Hortefeux explained he had been referring to just having taken "tens of photos" with party faithful from his home region of Auvergne, and that he would make an exception for one more picture.

"I simply said, speaking of people from Auvergne, that when there's one, it's not a problem, but when there are a lot, that can pose problems," he was quoted as saying on RTL radio.

"From my mouth, there was no reference to ethnic origin — North African, Arab, African, and so forth," he said.

Some Socialist rivals have called for Hortefeux's resignation, but Finance Minister Christine Lagarde insisted her colleague "jokes all the time," but is very rigorous and moral.

"I know the quality of the man," she told Canal Plus TV, inveighing against "a vast polemic that greatly pleases the opposition."

Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo told RTL radio there was no doubt that Hortefeux should stay on.

Sarkozy tried to deflect attention from the matter Friday. "Frankly, I would like everyone to concentrate on his work and not lose time in polemics," he said in brief remarks to media after a meeting with the Spanish prime minister.

The young man, identified by the French media as Amine Benalia-Brouch, replied in his own Internet statement: "This video has created a buzz and a polemic around Brice Hortefeux ... But he didn't make any insulting remark on Arabs or anyone else."

France has struggled with how to integrate immigrants from its former colonies and beyond, and how to accommodate its growing minority population. Discrimination was a factor behind riots largely by black and Arab young men across France in 2005.

On the streets of Paris, residents did not seem too upset about the incident.

"It's shocking, and it all depends on how it was said and interpreted," said Gerard Allanic, 58. "We're not going to waste our time on this, we have to get on with going to work every day."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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