The Muslim headscarf took center stage in the French presidential campaign on Friday as the two finalists in the hotly contested April 24 run-off faced women in headscarves who questioned why their clothing choices should be considered in politics.
France is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and many Muslims feel the presidential campaign has unfairly stigmatized their faith.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who trails the incumbent in the polls, said she would ban the wearing of headscarves in public and beautiful women who flout the ban.
President Emmanuel Macron has no such plans, but his government has ordered the closure of several mosques and Islamic groups which he accuses of fostering radical Islamist views.
Neither candidate fared well among Muslim voters in the April 10 first round, with around 70% backing third-placed Jean-Luc Mélenchon instead, according to pollsters.
At a farmers’ market in the southern town of Pertuis on Friday, a woman wearing a blue and white headgear approached Le Pen as the candidate walked past fishmongers and vendors to greet supporters.
“What does the headscarf do in politics? asked the woman.
Le Pen defended his position, calling the headscarf “a uniform imposed over time by people who have a radical vision of Islam”.
“That’s not true,” the woman replied. “I started wearing the veil when I was an older woman (…). For me, it’s the sign of being a grandmother.
The woman noted that her father had served in the French army for 15 years.
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Le Pen’s opposition to the headscarf has summed up what its critics say makes it dangerous for French unity, by stigmatizing millions of French Muslims. Le Pen would also reduce immigration and wants to ban ritual slaughter, which would restrict French Muslims and Jews’ access to kosher and halal meat.
Choice or obligation
Macron also debated a woman wearing a Muslim headscarf on Friday during a heated exchange on broadcaster Franceinfo. He sought to distance himself from Le Pen saying he would not change any laws, but defended the existing headscarf ban in schools as part of France’s secular principles.
The woman, Sara El Attar, said she felt insulted by Macron’s previous comments where he suggested the headscarf destabilizes relations between men and women.
French women “have been castigated in recent years for a simple headscarf, without any leader deigning to denounce this injustice”, she said. And she repeated the argument made by many veiled women in France: that people mistakenly think that they are veiled not by personal choice, but because men make them wear headscarves.
Macron has sought to defend his record. “For me personally, the headscarf issue is not an obsession,” Macron said.
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But critics say his government has stoked prejudice against Muslims by cracking down on what it claims are efforts by some Muslims to create spaces in France for stricter interpretations of Islam. The government attacked certain schools, mosques and Islamic associations.
Earlier this week, Macron was stopped by a woman wearing a headscarf in Strasbourg, who asked him if he considered himself a feminist.
“Do you wear the veil because you want to or because you have to? Macron asked the young woman, who said it was her choice.
“It’s important,” replied the president. “Because a veiled woman asks me if I’m a feminist, that’s the best possible answer to all the nonsense we hear from Ms. Le Pen.”
(FRANCE 24 with PA)