The French minister for women’s rights has been accused of racism after comparing women who wear the burqa to “negroes” who supported slavery.

Laurence Rossignol said her use of the word was a “slip of the tongue” and admitted she should not have said it but insisted she stood by the point she was trying to make.

Her comments in a radio interview provoked anger on social media, with some calling for her resignation. The comedian Olivier Perrin joked that she had been named director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

A petition was launched on calling for Rossignol to be punished.

“It is with anger and exasperation that we have been once again confronted with the verbal violence of a political leader,” wrote the petition’s organisers. “Asked about the false debate on ‘Islamic fashion’ she came out with scandalous propositions that feed the confusion and stigmatisation of Muslim women and the millions of transported slaves.”

Rossignol was speaking to BFTV over the decision by fashion companies including Marks & Spencer, H&M and Dolce & Gabbana to produce and promote fashion aimed at Muslims such as the “ burkini ”, as well as abayas and hijabs.

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The minister criticised the fashion labels, saying the clothing was not “socially responsible” and “from a certain point of view … promotes the shutting away of women’s bodies”.

When the interviewer suggested certain women made the decision of their own free will to cover themselves, Rossignol replied: “Of course, they are women who make the choice … there were also … American negroes who were in favour of slavery.”

Later Rossignol defended herself. She told Buzzfeed: “Negro is a pejorative word that should not be used except to evoke slavery with reference to the abolitionist work by Montesquieu. There was, therefore, no provocation on my part nor any desire to shock. It’s a word I would not use in any other circumstance.”

She was referring to the Enlightenment political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu who wrote “the state of slavery is in its own nature bad”.

In another statement, Rossignol said: “Apart from the slip of the tongue, I don’t take back a word that I said.”

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