The head of French President Emmanuel Macron’s political party has threatened to withdraw support for one of its own candidates in upcoming regional elections after she was pictured wearing a headscarf in a campaign poster.
Stanislas Guerini, who helped found Macron’s centrist movement in 2016, was reacting to an online poster depicting Sara Zemmahi, who is running for office in the southern city of Montpellier.
Zemmahi, an engineer, is shown smiling in a white headscarf along with three colleagues from the Republic on the Move (LREM) party who are running in the elections on June 20 and 27.
The image was tweeted on Monday by the number two in France’s far-right National Rally (RN) party, Jordan Bardella, which in turn drew a reaction from Guerini.
“Wearing ostentatious religious symbols on a campaign document is not compatible with the values of LREM,” Guerini wrote late on Monday.
“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, while 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.
Les valeurs portées par LREM ne sont pas compatibles avec le port ostentatoire de signes religieux sur un document de campagne électorale. Soit ces candidats changent leur photo, soit LREM leur retirera leur soutien. https://t.co/7jBY4sGH2j
— Stanislas Guerini (@StanGuerini) May 10, 2021
Analysts say Macron has tacked to the right in recent months in a bid to outflank the RN, led by Marine Le Pen, who is seen as his main rival in 2022 presidential elections.
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.
“Ostentatious” religious symbols are also banned in schools, but many in France, particularly on the right and far-right, would like to extend the restrictions to expressions of religion in all public spaces.
Debate has recently focused on whether mothers accompanying children on a school trip should be able to wear the Muslim headscarf.
Zemmahi’s fellow candidate 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 3 local television.
Local LREM MP Coralie Dubost also condemned Guerini’s ultimatum on Tuesday in an interview on Radio J.
“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 said.