PARIS, France (AFP) - France's interior minister called on Tuesday for a lawmaker to be "severely punished" after a journalist recorded him allegedly saying that Hitler may not have killed enough Roma.
Mr Gilles Bourdouleix, a lawmaker and mayor of the western town of Cholet, reportedly muttered the words on Sunday as he confronted members of the travelling community who had illegally set up camp, according to a recording posted on the site of regional daily Courrier de l'Ouest.
"Maybe Hitler did not kill enough," Mr Bourdouleix is heard saying after the Roma had reportedly given him the Nazi salute.
Mr Bourdouleix, who is a member of the lower house National Assembly with the centrist UDI party, said his comments were taken out of context and alleged the recording was tampered with.
Confrontations between French authorities and Roma - nomadic people widely known as gypsies who were killed in their hundreds of thousands by the Nazis - erupt frequently.
Mr Bourdouleix's comments have caused an uproar. Interior Minister Manuel Valls described them Tuesday as "unacceptable" and called for the lawmaker to be "very severely punished by law".
"These comments are a defence of crimes committed in the Second World War, a defence of Nazism and coming from a mayor, from a member of parliament, it's completely intolerable," he said on TV channel i-TELE.
The case has already been referred to public prosecutors who will examine whether his comments constitute a "defence of crimes against humanity", said authorities in Maine-et-Loire, the department where Cholet is located.
He faces up to five years in prison and a 45,000 euro (S$74,943) fine if convicted on the charge.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Mr Bourdouleix's comments were "not worthy of an elected representative" and were "punishable by law".
Mr Bourdouleix also risks being kicked out of his UDI party, whose executive committee meets on Wednesday.
"I hope Mr Bourdouleix's political party will take on its responsibilities, because this is unacceptable behaviour and not the first time for this man," PM Ayrault said.
Mr Bourdouleix has made controversial remarks about Roma in the past, including in November 2010 when he threatened to drive a truck through one of their caravan camps, and last November when he said France was facing a "new invasion" from the community.
The lawmaker defended himself for his latest remark, telling AFP on Monday that his comments had been taken out of context and pointing to "cuts" in the recording, which he alleges was tampered with.
France has a policy of systematically dismantling illegal camps and repatriating Roma of Bulgarian and Romanian nationality - a police whose legality has been questioned by the European Union, the United Nations' human rights arm and other watchdogs.
The European Association for the Defence of Human Rights says almost 12,000 Roma were evicted from camps across France last year, 80 per cent of them forcibly.
A French law stipulates that every town of more than 5,000 inhabitants must set up sites able to house members of the travelling community - be they Roma, circus performers or fun fair organisers.
In Cholet, authorities say the site devoted to travellers was temporarily closed due to works, adding the Roma had moved on since Sunday's incident. It is unclear what nationality they were.
The Roma, a nomadic people whose ancestors left India centuries ago, have long suffered from discrimination.
They were killed in their hundreds of thousands by the Nazis during the Second World War, alongside Jews and homosexuals.