Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, who has made waves for a crackdown on Gypsies and is appealing a conviction for a racist slur, is under fire from the prime minister for criticising the “disproportionate” sentencing of seven police officers.
He’s French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-hand man – and some think he may be a bit too much to the right.
But this week Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, the president’s oldest and most faithful ally, got a firm slapping down from the prime minister for questioning a magistrate’s verdict on seven convicted police officers.
Hortefeux, himself appealing against a court conviction for making a racial slur, openly criticised a judgement that has exposed a bitter relationship between the police and the judiciary in France.
Last Friday, seven officers were jailed for between six months and a year for falsely accusing a motorist of driving his car into theirs.
In solidarity with their convicted colleagues, some 200 police officers surrounded the court with their vehicles’ blue lights flashing their displeasure at the sentences.
“From the point of view of the police, these sentences can legitimately be seen as disproportionate,” Hortefeux said, repeating Sunday that he stood by what he said.
His comments were slammed by the opposition Socialist Party, whose Bruno Le Roux said Hortefeux was “singularly lacking in the spirit of the Republic”.
But the most telling rebuke came from Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
The actions of the accused officers were “totally unjustifiable,” he said, adding that the “honour of the police force relies entirely on exemplary behaviour in all regards.”
He added: “It is unacceptable that magistrates and the police should allow their emotions to give rise to conflict.
“The only people benefiting from all this are the criminals.”
Brice Hortefeux, a personal friend of Sarkozy’s for more than 30 years, is one of the French government's more vocal right-wingers.
As immigration minister he increased the number of illegal immigrants expelled from the country and is in favour of toughening the rules for granting political asylum in France.
As interior minister, and therefore responsible for law and order in France, Hortefeux was at the forefront of this year's crackdown on illegal Roma (Gypsy) camps and the voluntary repatriation of travellers to Romania and Bulgaria.
The policy, seen as an attempt by the ruling UMP party to win voters away from the far-right National Front, was widely condemned internationally, while the government maintained a vigorous defence of its actions.
In June Hortefeux was convicted of making a racial slur at a political rally, at which he was captured on film commenting on taking the stage with a man of Arabic origin.
“When there's one, that's OK,” he was heard saying. “It's when there are several that it becomes problematic.”
Hortefeux has appealed against the judgement.
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