Stanislas Guerini, who helped found President Macron's centrist movement in 2016, threatens to pull back support for Sara Zemmahi, who is running for office in the southern city of Montpellier.

A woman wearing a hijab walks at Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, on May 2, 2021.
A woman wearing a hijab walks at Trocadero square near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, on May 2, 2021. (Reuters)

French President Emmanuel Macron's political party has threatened to withdraw support for one of its 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, reacted 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 or En Marche(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."

France's problem with hijab 

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal backed the ultimatum on Tuesday, but added 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.

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 Islamic headscarf.

Some support for Zemmahi

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. 

'Hands off my hijab'

A proposal by French senators might soon deny the freedom for women to wear hijab in public spaces.

The amendment to an 'anti-separatism' bill designed to strengthen France's secular values and which applies to girls under 18 has drawn outrage and prompted an online protest under the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab (#PasToucheAMonHijab) that went viral beyond French borders.

"It's part of my identity. To force me to remove it would be a humiliation, I cannot understand why they would want to pass a law that discriminates," said 16-year-old Mariem Chourak, a devout Muslim.

The place of religion and religious symbols worn in public, a cause adopted by France's far-right parties, is seen as targeting Europe's largest Muslim minority.

France prohibited the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools in 2004. 

In 2010, it banned the niqab, the full-face Islamic veil, in public places such as streets, parks, public transport, and administrative buildings.

The amendment pertains to all religious symbols, though opponents say it targets Muslims. 

Macron warns of 'Islamism'

Macron has warned that so-called Islamism is undermining the unity of the Republic.

His government's anti-separatism bill cracks down on forced marriages and virginity tests, and includes stricter surveillance of religious associations. It initially made no mention of preventing minors from wearing the hijab in public.

The conservative-dominated Senate added the amendment, as well as two more that would prevent mothers from wearing a hijab when accompanying children on school trips and ban the full-body burkini swimsuit.

A joint committee from parliament's two chambers will debate the amendments and they may yet be scratched from the bill.

But for 22-year-old Hiba Latreche the damage is done.

"(It is) symptomatic of the constant policing of women's bodies, choices and beliefs that we have in France," she said, "as well as the instrumentalisation of Muslim women.

READ MORE: France allows girls to consent to sex at 15, but bans hijab until 18

Source: TRTWorld and agencies