France’s long-standing debate over the Muslim headscarf has affected a local political race, giving it a national significance, with a decision by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party to withdraw its backing for a candidate because she was pictured in a poster with her head covered.
“I’m frankly pained by the decision,” Mahfoud Benali, the lead candidate on the list for a district in the southern city of Montpellier, said on Wednesday of the move by Macron’s party to refuse support for Sara Zemmahi, from his list.
Zemmahi is shown in a campaign poster for the June elections wearing a white wraparound headscarf, French media sources report.
France bans Muslim headscarves in classrooms and certain other locations, but they are not forbidden in the public space or on campaign posters.
However, Stanislas Guerini, head of Macron’s LREM party, told radio station RTL on Tuesday that, nevertheless, the party would not back Zemmahi in the election campaign.
“We consider that ostentatious religious signs don’t have their place on posters, whatever the religion,” Guerini said.
The decision, which drew criticism from some members of Macron’s own party, underscored the divisiveness of France’s long-standing debate on headscarves, and secularism, and how it may play out in politics before next year’s presidential vote.
Macron is expected to try to renew his mandate, and, if so, could find himself in a repeat of the 2017 race, facing off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
It was a tweet of the poster by the No.2 official in Le Pen’s National Rally party, Jordan Bardella, that brought the issue into the public eye.
Bardella tweeted: “That’s the fight against separatism,” a reference to Macron’s avowed effort to rid France of political Islam and extremists.
In a later tweet, Bardella said the Muslim headscarf is “contrary to all our values” and his National Rally party “will forbid it in public”.
He was making a reference to an eventual victory of Le Pen in next year’s presidential race, which if it happens, will not bode well for militant French Muslims.