A former French minister under Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency has come under fire for saying that France is a "white race" country, suggesting immigrants and particularly Muslims are welcome only as long as they adapt.

Commenting on the migrant crisis in Europe in a televised interview, Nadine Morano, an MEP with the centre-right UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party, stressed France has Judeo-Christian roots, adding she didn't want to see Islam become the main religion.

"We must keep a balance in the country, [preserve] its cultural majority to have national cohesion," she told France 2 channel. "We are a Judeo-Christian country – as General de Gaulle said – of white race that welcomes foreigners. I want France to remain France; I'm not looking forward to see it become a Muslim country."

The remark drew a wave of criticism, including from interviewer Laurent Ruquier who said he was "shocked". On social media, many decried the use of the word "race", which was banned by parliament in 2013 for its discriminatory connotation, but Morano said she was entitled to use for "it is in the dictionary".

Others noted that her statement was in disregard of French nationals from overseas territories, like the French West Indies or French Guiana. "'France is a country of white race.' We thank viewers watching the program from the Antilles," quipped a Twitter user Natalia Robles.

The controversy came as the UMP has veered right on immigration not to lose too much ground to the far-right Front National of Marine Le Pen, which proposes a stanch nationalist rhetoric.

Earlier in September, Sarkozy called for tougher immigration policies, including reducing migrants' access to welfare. France is home to the largest Muslim population in western Europe, with almost five million Muslims making up about 7% of its population.