PARIS: The head of French President Emmanuel Macron’s political party has threatened to withdraw support for one of their own candidates in regional elections after she wore a headscarf for a campaign poster.
The warning from Stanislas Guerini, who helped found Macron’s centrist movement in 2016, caused a rift in the governing Republic on the Move (LREM) party, with some MPs voicing open criticism.
Guerini reacted on Monday to an election poster of Sara Zemmahi, an engineer standing for the party in the southern city of Montpellier in regional elections that are set to take place on June 20 and 27.
The picture of Zemmahi, who is shown smiling in a white headscarf along with three LREM colleagues, was tweeted by the number two in France’s far-right National Rally (RN) party, Jordan Bardella.
“Wearing ostentatious religious symbols on a campaign document is not compatible with the values of LREM,” Guerini wrote late on Monday in a reply to Bardella.
“Either these candidates change their photo, or LREM will withdraw its support.” Government spokesman Gabriel Attal backed the ultimatum on France Inter radio on Tuesday, adding that “legally, nothing prevents someone standing in an election from displaying a religious symbol, in this case a headscarf”.
He said it was a “political choice” to have candidates who do not display their religious beliefs.
Analysts say Macron has tacked to the right in recent months with security and immigration set to be key issues in presidential elections next year.
His government is in the process of passing new legislation to crack down on what he has termed “Islamist separatism” which would give the state more power to vet and disband religious groups judged to be threats to the nation.
Polls show RN leader Marine Le Pen at historic highs and as the main rival to Macron, who was elected in 2017 promising to be neither left, nor right.
France has a strict form of secularism called “laicite” which was borne out of more than a century of struggle for power between the state and the Catholic church.
The law obliges state workers to respect strict religious neutrality and prohibits them from wearing ostentatious religious symbols such as an Islamic headscarf, a Jewish kippa or a visible Christian cross.
But nothing prevents local elected figures from displaying their religion or prevents citizens from freely practising their faiths.
One of Zemmahi’s fellow candidates in Montpellier defended her, saying she was active in local charities and should not be judged by her appearance.
“I see Sara’s abilities — I don’t see what she’s wearing,” Mahfoud Benali, who is pictured with Zemmahi on the poster, told France 3television.
Local LREM MP Coralie Dubost also condemned Guerini’s ultimatum on Tuesday.
“When you have a young woman engineer, who does hours of charity work, who is involved in a party that has progressive values — whether she’s veiled or not, there is a place for her with us,” she told Radio J.
In a meeting of MPs on Tuesday, Guerini reportedly admitted that being seen to reply directly to the far-right was “an error”. “If some people have been upset, then I’m sorry,” he said.
Last September, a Muslim student representative was boycotted by several right-wing MPs and one from Macron’s party when she attended a parliamentary hearingwearing a headscarf.
Debate has raged for years in France about whether the Islamic headscarf is a political statement in favour of Islamism, or simply a cultural signifier and clothing choice adopted by many Muslim women.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2021