PARIS — A Muslim woman in a blue and white hijab confronted Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate, as she pushed through a crowd in the southern city of Pertuis last week. “What does the headscarf do in politics?” the woman asked.
Ms. Le Pen, a nationalist with an anti-immigrant agenda, has vowed to ban wearing the headscarf in public if she is elected in the second round of voting next Sunday. She says it is “an Islamist uniform,” or a sign of adherence to an extremist, anti-Western interpretation of the Muslim faith.
The woman arguing with Mrs. Le Pen had nothing to do with this. Her choice to wear a headscarf was made, she said, “when I was an older woman”, as a sign of “being a grandmother”. Ms. Le Pen urged that in many French neighborhoods, women who do not wear a veil are “separated, isolated and judged”.
In the country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, what a woman wears on her head matters. France has a difficult relationship with Islam due to its colonial history in Algeria and several jihadist terror attacks in recent years. As Ms Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron compete in a close race, religious freedom, especially for Muslims who make up about 8 percent of the population, has become a crucial issue.
Mr Macron, who has called Ms Le Pen’s plan “an extremist project,” has nonetheless angered some members of the Muslim community, mainly through legislation designed to combat what he calls “Islamic separatism.” That law, passed last year, has been used to shut down some mosques and Islamic associations accused of fomenting radicalism. It was designed in part to lure right-wing voters to its center camp.
Mr Macron, whose lead in polls has risen slightly over the past week to 53.5% against Ms Le Pen’s 46.5%, had his own confrontation with a young French woman wearing a hijab during a campaign stop in Strasbourg last week. .
“Are you a feminist?” he asked. “Are you for equality between women and men?”
When the woman answered yes to both questions, saying her headscarf was chosen, not imposed, Mr Macron, clearly referring to Ms Le Pen, said it was the “best answer to all the stupidity I keep hearing”.
It was another example of Mr Macron, who barely campaigned before the first round of voting on April 10, adapting his message to appeal to blocs of voters who have felt betrayed by him – the Muslim community – for the past five years. and left.
In the first round, about 70 percent of French Muslims voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who was narrowly eliminated, according to a survey by the Ifop polling station. Where those votes go now matters.
France is a secular republic and in theory a non-discriminatory society where people are free to believe or not believe in any god they want. But it is in a raging debate about Islam. A growing Muslim presence is seen by the far right as a deadly threat to French identity, and this view has gained a foothold in the political mainstream.
Deeply attached to its model of a secular society known as laïcité, which is supposed to bring all men and women into the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship, France has been hesitant to acknowledge the failures many Muslim immigrants and their families have suffered. descendants in dismal condition have left housing projects on the fringes of major cities, without a viable French identity or future.
Since 2011, it has been illegal to wear a face-covering niqab, or a full-body burqa, in public. But there is no ban on the headscarf.
French laws prohibit the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols – the headscarf is considered a headscarf – in schools. Civil servants are also not allowed to do this at work. Debate has raged over whether parents accompanying school trips should wear headscarves, but attempts to stop them have failed.
Strong French feelings about equality between men and women, about secularism and about the so-called color-blind society are behind the vehemence of the discussion on these issues. This also applies to unacknowledged or overt prejudice.
Mr Macron has accused Ms Le Pen of undermining the principles of laïcité and the constitution itself with the proposed headscarf ban. In an interview with Franceinfo Radio last week, he said she should also ban the use of the “kippa, the cross and other religious symbols” in public or she would discriminate against believers.
Not so, Ms Le Pen replied in an interview with France Inter radio. “The headscarf is really an Islamist uniform, it’s not a Muslim uniform, and that makes all the difference. It is the uniform of an ideology, not a religion.”
She continued: “This ban is not based on the concept of laïcité. It is based on the struggle against Islamist ideologies.”
Ms Le Pen, however, appeared to hedge a bit on Sunday, saying the issue is a “complex issue” and her proposed ban would be discussed in the National Assembly.
Whether the ban would also apply to women who choose headscarves as fashion statements à la Audrey Hepburn is unclear.
Ms. Le Pen has said there would be no more problems applying the ban and fining women who wear clothes headscarf, then there is enforcement of the use of seat belts.
If such comments drive Muslim voters away from Ms Le Pen, it is far from clear that they will also incite them to support Mr Macron in the second round. Many first-round voters for Mélenchon, including Muslims, have said they will abstain on April 24.
In a radio debate with Mr Macron last week, Sara El Attar, the founder of Hashtag Ambition and a communications coach, said Mr Macron’s comments suggesting headscarves harm relationships between men and women had angered her as a Muslim woman. who chooses to wear a headscarf.
French women “have been punished in recent years for a simple scarf, without a leader deigning to denounce this injustice,” she said.
To further poison the debate on religious freedom, Ms Le Pen has pledged to ban the ritual slaughter of animals necessary for the production of halal and kosher meat, a position rejected by Mr Macron as a harbinger of a France where “ Muslims and Jews not to eat as their religion dictates.”
In a joint statement last week, Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, and Élie Korchia, the president of the Israeli Central Consistory, said such a measure, for both Jews and Muslims, would be “a serious attack on the free practice of religion.” which is a foundation of our constitution.” They urged voters to support Macron.
Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the Union of French Mosques, said ritual slaughter was “an aspect of religious freedom”, guaranteed by the constitution. While condemning Ms. Le Pen, he did not say how Muslims should vote.
The woman who confronted Ms. Le Pen in Pertuis noted that her father had served in the French army for 15 years. The huge cemetery at Verdun, the scene of one of the most devastating battles of the First World War, has an entire section for French Muslims who died fighting for France.
While the debate over Islam’s place in France rages on, this military service is seldom remembered, to the point that the position of Éric Zemmour – the now-eliminated far-right candidate who claimed Islam and France were simply “incompatible” – was nearly 2 attracted .5 million people. million votes in the first round.
He has urged his followers to vote for Ms Le Pen in the second round.
Aurelien Breeden reporting contributed.