French Elections: Hijabi Candidate Challenges Anti-Muslim Sentiments

French Muslim Sara Zemmahi has joined the list of victims of Islamophobia after the ruling party withdrew its support for her candidacy as a local councilor.

All this because she posed in hijab in a campaign poster.

Now, the 26-year-old laboratory technician and the three other candidates who had been on the same ticket are now running as independents in the southern city of Montpellier under the slogan “Different but united for you”.

“We’re not giving up,” Zemmahi told Reuters.

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The young Muslim came in the middle of a national row over identity after the far-right used her hijabi poster as a proof President Emanuel Macron ruling party LaRem was weak on protecting France’s secular values.

Running as independent, Zemmahi said she wanted to focus on promoting equal opportunities and fighting discrimination.

“This is my neighborhood, I was born here. The headscarf wasn’t an issue for the four of us.”

Far-right

Despite Zemmahi’s dreams, Laïcité, France’s version of secularism, will be central to the campaign battle ahead of the 2022 presidential vote.

Opinion polls show far-right leader Marine Le Pen will be Macron’s biggest challenger.

“The moment you wear a religious symbol on a campaign poster, it becomes a political act,” LaRem spokesperson Roland Lescure told Reuters.

“I prefer that our candidates and our elected officials speak to all citizens.”

LaRem lawmaker Coralie Dubost expressed regret at her party’s stance: “She should have a place in our party whether she wears a headscarf or not.”

Mahfoud Benali, who heads Zemmahi’s ticket, however, believes France was changing.

“I’m in favor of elected officials who reflect society,” he said.

Hijab in France

Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.

What Muslim women choose to wear is a controversial topic in France, an officially secular society that prohibits religious signs and symbols in public life.

In 2004, France banned hijab in public schools, and in 2010, it became the first European nation to ban burqa, which covers a woman’s face.

Veiled women face regular scrutiny in public life.

In 2018, Maryam Pougetoux, a student union leader, appeared in hijab during an interview on national television that had nothing to do with Islam. The interview launched a similar polemic that landed her on the cover of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, which depicted her as a monkey. At that time, she was 19.