The leader of French President Emmanuel Macron’s political party has threatened to withdraw support for one of her own regional election candidates after wearing a headscarf for a campaign poster.
The threat from Stanislas Guerini, who helped found Mr Macron’s centrist movement in 2016, sparked a rift within the ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) party, with some MPs voicing open criticism.
Mr. Guerini reacted on Monday to the electoral poster of Sara Zemmahi, an engineer who is running for the party in the southern city of Montpellier in the regional elections on June 20 and 27.
The photo of Ms Zemmahi, shown smiling in a white scarf alongside three party colleagues, was tweeted by far-right French National Rally MP Jordan Bardella.
“Wearing ostentatious religious symbols on a campaign document is not compatible with LREM’s values,” Guerini wrote in response to Mr. Bardella on Monday evening.
“Either these candidates change their photo or LREM will withdraw its support.”
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal supported the ultimatum on France Inter radio on Tuesday.
Mr Attal said that “there is nothing legally preventing someone who runs for office from displaying a religious symbol, in this case a headscarf”.
But he said it was a “political choice” to have candidates who did not display their religious beliefs.
Analysts say Mr Macron has moved to the right in recent months, with security and immigration set to be key issues in next year’s presidential elections.
His government is passing legislation to crack down on what it has called “Islamist separatism.”
This would give the state more power to control and dissolve religious groups seen as threats to the nation.
Polls show that Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, has reached historic heights as the main rival of Mr Macron, who was elected in 2017 by promising to be neither left nor right.
France has a strict form of secularism called “laicite”, born out of more than a century of struggle for power between the state and the Catholic Church.
The law requires officials to observe strict religious neutrality and prohibits them from wearing religious symbols, such as a Muslim headscarf, Jewish yamulka, or visible Christian cross.
But nothing prevents local elected officials from displaying their religion or prevents citizens from freely practicing their religion.
One of Ms Zemmahi’s other candidates in Montpellier said she should not be judged on what she chose to wear.
“I see Sara’s abilities, I don’t see what she is wearing,” said France 3 television host Mahfoud Benali, who is pictured with Ms. Zemmahi on the poster.
The local deputy of the National Assembly LREM, Coralie Dubost, also condemned the ultimatum of Mr. Guerini.
Ms Dubost described Ms Zemmahi as “a young female engineer who does hours of charitable work and is involved in a party that has progressive values.”
She said there was “a place for her with us” whether or not she wears a scarf.
At a meeting of deputies on Tuesday, Guerini reportedly admitted that responding directly to the far right was “a mistake”.
“If some people were upset, then I’m sorry,” he said.
Last September, a Muslim student representative was boycotted by several right-wing MPs and one from Mr. Macron’s party when she attended a parliamentary hearing wearing a headscarf.
The debate has been raging for years in France as to whether the headscarf is a political statement, or simply a cultural sign and a sartorial choice adopted by many Muslim women.
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