Thousands have called for France's minister for women's rights to resign after she compared Muslim women who wear the veil to American negroes who accepted slavery.

In an interview with France's BFMTV, Laurence Rossignol criticised fashion retailers H&M, Marks & Spencer and Dolce & Gabbana for selling clothing catering to the female Muslim market, including hijabs and the "burkini" – a hooded swimsuit that leaves only the hands, feet and face visible.

Rossignol described the companies as "irresponsible" and guilty of "promoting the confinement of women's bodies".

When the interviewer said that many Muslim women freely choose to adhere to a conservative dress code, Rossignol replied: "Of course there are women who choose it. There were American negroes who were in favour of slavery."

More than 17,000 people have signed an online petition, calling on Rossignol to be punished. She also faced widespread criticism on Twitter.

"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 subsequently attributed her remarks to a "slip of the tongue", but said she stood by the point she was trying to make.

In 2010, the French parliament voted to ban the face-concealing burqa and niqab from public places. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the bill, after critics argued that it constituted a contravention of the right to freedom of expression.