Right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen has wants to ban Muslim headscarf in public places, while Emmanuel Macron says there will be no changes to his own policies.
The headscarf of Muslim women has emerged as a major polarising issue during the presidential election for allegedly being antithetical to France’s fundamental value of secularism.
The veil, or headscarf, has always been used as a highly charged issue for the French political class and is a compulsive phobia across the political spectrum.
On Friday, the finalists were challenged by veiled Muslim women about their policies, with Le Pen maintaining that she was firm on a ban and defended the choice of those wearing it out of free will.
In a market in Pertuis in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region in southeastern France, Le Pen was questioned by a hijab-wearing woman about her proposed ban.
“There are a number of neighborhoods in which women who do not wear the veil are ostracized. They are judged, they are isolated because they do not wear the veil," said the National Rally candidate.
Le Pen has called the ban “essential” and vowed to introduce a bill prohibiting the veil in public places with a penalty for those who violate it.
Macron said he is not “obsessed” with the headscarf as his opponent. His government worked to identify the root cause of the problem and target them through the “separatism bill,” not change the laws for “everyone,” he said.
French Muslims, estimated at 6 million, are a minority in the country, but every election infuses a new debate around the veil, in particular with politicians vowing to restore “French values” by a selective or complete ban.
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Right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen has made the veil a part of her political manifesto and promised to ban it in public spaces if she becomes president.
Despite Macron’s efforts to separate himself from his right-wing rival, his government’s anti-separatism law has been criticised for unfairly targeting the Muslim population.
“There is no change in this policy, i.e. there is the neutrality of public services, no veil in public services, no veil at school, college and high school with minors,” Macron said, insisting that "for the rest, society is a free society."
Marwan Muhammad, an outspoken former director of a group that campaigned against Islamophobia - and has since been banned by the government - said Macron and Le Pen have turned Islam in France into an electoral football, both trawling for support among their respective audiences. Le Pen’s more radical positions are “a blessing for Macron,” he said.
“What he wants is to present himself as the alternative, when in fact his policies of the last five years have been destructive for Muslims,” Muhammad added.
Bans targeting the clothing of Muslim women in France have been in place since 2004 when a ban was placed on headscarves in classrooms. In 2010 a ban was placed on the face-covering, niqab, in public spaces. Headscarves are common apparel for many Muslim women.