Hijab: The Muslim veil bursts into the electoral campaign in France | International

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Leaving a rally in Strasbourg, Emmanuel Macron a week ago ran into a woman with her head covered in an Islamic veil who wanted to know if the French president is a feminist. The candidate for re-election answered yes and asked her if she is a feminist and if she wears a hijab because she wants to or because they force her. “Yes, I am a feminist (…) and I wear the veil because I want to,” she replied. Pointing to the television cameras that were attentively following the brief conversation, Macron smiled, pleased that he had found the perfect moment to launch one more attack on his rival for the Elysee next Sunday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen. “Having a young woman wearing the veil in Strasbourg asking me if I am a feminist is the best answer to all the nonsense I hear,” said the centrist candidate. “Because on the other side is Mrs. Le Pen, who says that she will ban the veil in public places,” he recalled about one of the electoral promises of the leader of the National Rally (RN).

The Islamic headscarf has once again broken into the French electoral campaign. And, for once, the race does not seem to be about who promises the most heavy-handedness or intransigence, but rather which candidate is able to better understand the nuances of a debate that has been dividing France for years. The second round of the presidential elections will be held this Sunday between two candidates who in recent years have maintained a harsh discourse regarding Islamic fundamentalism and a garment, the hijab, which many in France see as a symbol of religious radicalization and a an affront to the sacrosanct secularism of the country.

The turnaround is not fortuitous: both Macron and Le Pen have courted the 7.7 million votes that radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon garnered in the first round since qualifying for the second round a week ago. The leader of France Insumisa took most of the Muslim votes: 69%, compared to 14% for Macron and 7% for Le Pen, according to an Ifop survey for the Catholic newspaper La Croix. With some six million practicing Muslims, Islam is the second religion in France and its Muslim community is the largest in Europe.

But beyond the Muslim vote, the voter melenchonista, Often described as “Islamo-left”, he generally has a much less strict view of the Islamic garment than the rest of the left. And, above all, that the extreme right, or even that a Macron who in his five years in office has made more nods to the right than to the left in this matter, especially with the law approved last year to combat “separatism Islamist”.

Until the first round, Le Pen played with a harsh tone to limit the competition posed by the other ultra candidate, Éric Zemmour, who has come to equate Islam with Islamism. Averting the danger posed by Zemmour, and in need of votes from the other extreme (analysts estimate that up to a third of Mélenchon’s voters in the first round could opt for the RN next Sunday), Le Pen is no longer so restrictive in around the Islamic veil.

One day after an older woman of Algerian origin questioned her on Friday during an electoral act in Vaucluse, in the southeast of the country, telling her that the hijab she wears is “a symbol of grandmother” and not an “Islamist uniform”, as Le Pen has come to define it during the campaign, the far-right candidate admitted over the weekend that the veil is a “complex problem” and that she does not want to be “narrow-minded” on the issue. Therefore, she added, the issue of banning the veil in public spaces — but not other visible religious symbols such as the Jewish yarmulke — is something that should be debated in the National Assembly. Without going as far as the mayor of Béziers and supporter of Le Pen, Robert Ménard, who described the proposal to ban the veil on the street as an “error”, the Lepenist lieutenants have made an effort in recent hours to lower the tone of the controversial downgrading the proposal from a “priority” to a long-term “goal.”

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But Le Pen is not the only one who has moderated her speech. Never going as far as the far-right candidate, Macron and her team are criticized for having also maintained a tougher stance on Islam and the veil than it now does.

In 2019, the Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, condemned the attitude of a politician from Le Pen’s party who urged a hijab-wearing mother who was accompanying a class of students to a session of the regional council of Le Pen to remove her veil. Bourgogne-Franche-Comte. However, Blanquer admitted that he would prefer that a mother who participates in an after-school activity not wear a veil. “The veil is not something desirable in our society. It’s not prohibited, but it shouldn’t be encouraged either. What [el velo] says about the feminine condition is not in accordance with our values”, he said. That same year, several members of the Government had criticized a sports hijab launched by the Decathlon firm and that the French sports giant ended up withdrawing.

More recently, in May 2021, the leadership of Macron’s party, La República en Marcha (LREM), forced the removal of the Montpellier regional electoral poster in which a female candidate posed in a hijab.

The forced courtship of the electorate mélenchonist it has forced Macron to readjust his program in other respects. On Saturday, he promised at a rally that, if re-elected, ecology will have a much more weighty space in his government. And he has also “opened the door” to a qualification of his proposal to increase the retirement age to 65, another red line for many voters that he needs this Sunday if he wants to repeat his term.

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