PARIS (Reuters) - A local election candidate who equated France's black justice minister with a monkey on her Facebook page was suspended by the far-right National Front on Friday after being exposed on television.
The incident was a blow to the anti-immigration party's efforts to shake off accusations of racism. The movement led by Marine Le Pen has been gaining ground in opinion polls ahead of municipal and European elections next year and won a local by-election in the southern town of Brignoles last Sunday.
Anne-Sophie Leclere, candidate in the northeastern town of Rethel, posted a photo montage on the social network depicting Justice Minister Christiane Taubira alongside a picture of a baby chimpanzee.
Confronted on France 2 television, Leclere said: "I'd rather see her up a tree ... than in the government like this.
"Frankly, she's a savage, showing up on TV with that devil's smile," the candidate said, adding: "It's not racist."
Florian Philippot, the party's vice-president, told i>Tele TV that Leclere would face an internal disciplinary hearing and called her selection as a candidate a "casting error".
The National Front has expelled several members for racism or showing neo-Nazi sympathies since Marine Le Pen took over the leadership in 2011 from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was convicted for belittling the Holocaust.
She has shifted the focus of party criticism from Arab immigrants to Islamists, projecting herself as a defender of secularism and women's rights, and has threatened to sue journalists who call the National Front "extreme right" for defamation.
Le Pen's popularity has grown amid high unemployment and public frustration over illegal Roma camps, with a poll this week showing voters consider her the strongest challenger to Socialist President Francois Hollande, ahead of mainstream conservative politicians.
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur and Sophie Louet; Editing by Paul Taylor)