PARIS - France's far-right National Front on Friday dropped a candidate for municipal elections due in March after she compared the country's black justice minister to a monkey.
The anti-immigration eurosceptic party led by Marine Le Pen is desperately seeking a makeover to broaden its voter appeal and dispel its xenophobic image.
The National Front recently won a key by-election and is tipped to be the leading French party in European elections also due next year, according to a new poll.
Anne-Sophie Leclere, the FN candidate for Rethel in the northeastern Ardennes region provoked a storm by comparing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey on French television.
She has also owned up to a photo-montage showing Taubira, who is from French Guiana, alongside a baby monkey which was posted on her Facebook page.
The caption underneath the baby monkey said "At 18 months," while the one under Taubira's photograph read "Now".
The 33-year-old mother-of-three told France 2's Envoye Special (Special Correspondent) programme she would prefer to see Taubira "in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government."
"She is wild," Leclere said, adding: "I have black friends and it doesn't mean I call them monkeys." Florian Philippot, the National Front's vice-president, said the choice of Leclere as a candidate had been a "casting error".
Leclere will face a disciplinary hearing. She officially joined the party in 2012 and was named a candidate for last year's legislative elections only three months later.
The incident came on the heels of insults and attacks against Italy's first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, which sparked a pledge by 17 European countries to fight racism.
The attacks against the Congolese-born Kyenge have ranged from a senior member of the far-right Northern League party likening her to an orangutan, to having bananas thrown at her and nooses hung in a town where she was due to speak.
In a climate of growing outrage and concern over the rise of racism and xenophobia in Europe, the FN has increasingly taken a hard line on slurs expressed by its members.
In September it dropped another candidate for posting a photo on his Facebook page showing a burning Israeli flag with the caption "This is France" - an allusion to the country's large Muslim community, the biggest in western Europe.
The party has also expelled activists for making bigoted public statements and the FN lists in next year's municipal elections will include a handful of ethnic minority candidates.
The party's image has long been closely linked to the personality of its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has faced a string of convictions for incitement to racial hatred and Holocaust denial.