PARIS - 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. "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." 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.