Laboratory technician Sara Zemmahi was running to be a local councillor backed by President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party until last month when it withdrew its support.
Her misbehaviour: wearing her hijab in a campaign poster, Reuters reports.
The 26-year-old and the three other candidates on the same poster are now running as independents in the southern city of Montpellier under the slogan: “Different but united for you.”
The row erupted after opposition parties cited the poster as proof Macron was weak on protecting France’s strong secular values.
The discussion catapulted Zemmahi into a national ruckus over identity.
“We’re not giving up,” she said, still wearing her hijab as she distributed campaign fliers in La Mosson, a low-income Montpellier district that is home to generations of Muslim immigrants from France’s former north African colonies.
She said she wanted to focus on promoting equal opportunities and fighting discrimination.
“This is my neighbourhood; I was born here. The headscarf wasn’t an issue for the four of us candidates.”
However, across France the hijab is becoming a divisive issue.
Zemmahi’s campaign photo split Macron’s LaRem party, reflecting deep divisions over how secular laws should be applied, notably after Islam emerged as the country’s second-biggest religion behind Catholicism.
For supporters of laïcité, the constitutional foundation of secularism in France, which discourages religious involvement in government affairs, Islamic headwear has become a symbol of the politicisation of Islam, and Muslim resistance to the Republic’s vision of French identity.
Laïcité and identity will be central to the campaign battle ahead of the 2022 presidential vote.
Current opinion polls show far-right leader Marine Le Pen will be Macron’s biggest challenger.
Mahfoud Benali, who heads Zemmahi’s ticket, said France is changing. “I’m in favour of elected officials who reflect society,” he told Reuters.
Zemmahi is not dogmatic about her headscarf; she often removes it at her laboratory for hygiene reasons. Her fellow candidates said the campaign photo was meant to illustrate how the four reflected the local demographic.
Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party spokesman Roland Lescure told Reuters, “The moment you wear a religious symbol on a campaign poster, it becomes a political act. I prefer that our candidates and our elected officials speak to all citizens.”
In the local marketplace, housepainter of North African descent Karim el Ameraouy wished Zemmahi luck, saying, “A veil doesn’t stop you being French.”