Muslim women in burqa face veils (illustration)
Muslim women in burqa face veils (illustration)Serge Attal/Flash 90

France's women's rights minister faced growing criticism on Thursday, including calls on social media to resign, after she compared women who wear the Muslim headscarf and veil to "negroes who supported slavery."

An online petition that collected nearly 18,000 signatures within hours urged Prime Minister Manuel Valls to punish Laurence Rossignol, while a leading French Muslim group made the unlikely accusation that he was "aiding" the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

It was as if she had "set out to help the recruiters of Daesh," said Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia, using a pejorative Arabic term for ISIS.

The minister had "stigmatized" thousands of women, he said, and "spat in the face of the (secular) laws of the Republic by trying to interfere with the way women dressed."

The row was also trending on Twitter across France with a hashtag #RossignolDemission (#RossignolResign) demanding that she step down.

The League of French Muslim Women also condemned her comments, calling them "dangerous and irresponsible," and claiming that women who wear the veil and headscarf are the main victims of racist attacks in the street.

"It is all the more surprising because the government has just launched an (advertising) campaign against racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia," the league's statement added.

Rossignol, who is also minister of family and child matters, tried to row back on the comments made during a radio interview Wednesday.

She told AFP the n-word was a reference to an abolitionist tract by the French philosopher Montesquieu, "On the Enslavement of Negroes."

Her remarks came as she was asked about the wave of big fashion chains that have followed the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana in catering specifically to the Muslim market, creating lines of hijab headscarves and "burqini" all-body swimming costumes.

The statement was also pounced on by satirists. Comedian Olivier Perrin joked that she would make a good campaign director for US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who has drawn fire for his calling to temporarily stop Muslim immigration until better checks are established.

Perrin had earlier posted a picture on Twitter of a hooded Ku Klux Klan member giving the Nazi salute with the caption, "Laurence Rossignol wishes you a good day."

The cartoonist of Le Monde daily, Plantu, also came in for criticism on social media for his take on the row, showing two headscarved women asking when they could get designer explosives belts.

AFP contributed to this report.