PARIS – France's interior minister has been caught on camera making what sound like anti-Arab remarks, infuriating anti-racism groups, even as he insisted Thursday that his words were innocent and misconstrued.
It's an ugly controversy for Brice Hortefeux, the top law enforcement official and a former immigration minister in a country where tensions between police and minority youths occasionally erupt into violence.
It's also sensitive for President Nicolas Sarkozy, a longtime friend of Hortefeux, and his conservative government.
A video circulating on the Internet shows Hortefeux at an event last weekend in southwest France for the governing party UMP, having his picture taken with a young party member of North African origin.
Voices in the primarily white crowd talk of "integration"; one woman says "he's our little Arab."
Hortefeux is heard saying "he doesn't fit the prototype at all." Then he says, "We always need one. When there's one, that's all right. It's when there a lot of them that there are problems."
Hortefeux's office released a statement saying the remark was a "reference to the very many pictures that he had just had taken" with local party members.
"Not a single word by Brice Hortefeux made reference to a supposed ethnic origin of a young activist," it said.
But Hortefeux's critics jumped on the comment.
Activist group SOS Support for Illegal Immigrants said a top court should look into the remarks, accusing him of "racial hatred." Hortefeux has helped carry out Sarkozy's push to keep out and expel illegal immigrants.
An umbrella group of black associations in France, CRAN, said it was "shocked by these unacceptable comments."
Gilbert Roger, the Socialist mayor of Bondy, a Paris suburb where police have clashed with youths of immigrant background, said Hortefeux "is so disconnected from reality that he is surprised that there is diversity within his own party."
A top official whom Hortefeux recently suspended for racist comments, Paul Girot de Langlade, said on France-Info radio, "I hope he joins me soon."
France has struggled with how to integrate immigrants from its former colonies and beyond, and how to accommodate its growing minority population. Discrimination was one factor behind an explosion of riots largely by black and Arab young men in neglected housing projects around France in 2005.