The candidate and her hijab: identity matters in the French elections


MONTPELLIER, France, June 8 (Reuters) – Laboratory technician Sara Zemmahi was running as a city councilor backed by President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party until last month, when she withdrew her support. His transgression: wearing his hijab on a campaign poster.

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

The case erupted after the far right grabbed the image as proof that Macron was weak in protecting France’s secular values ​​and propelled Zemmahi into a national identity feud.

“We are not giving up,” Zemmahi said, still wearing her hijab as she handed out campaign leaflets in La Mosson, a low-income neighborhood in Montpellier that is home to generations of Muslim immigrants from the former French colonies of North Africa.

In her first interview since becoming involved in the national debate on the role of Islam in France, Zemmahi said she wanted to focus on promoting equal opportunities and fighting discrimination. .

“This is my neighborhood, I was born here. The scarf was not a problem for the four of us.”

However, in much of France this is the case.

Zemmahi’s campaign photo divided Macron’s LaRem party, reflecting deep divisions over how secular laws should be enforced, especially after Islam became the country’s second religion behind Catholicism.

For supporters of a strict interpretation of secularism, the French version of secularism, the Islamic headgear has become a symbol of the politicization of Islam, subjugation and resistance to the republican vision of the French identity.

Secularism and identity will be at the heart of the campaign battle ahead of the 2022 presidential election. Opinion polls show that far-right leader Marine Le Pen will be Macron’s biggest challenger.

Mahfoud Benali, who runs Zemmahi’s ticket, said France was changing.

French local election candidate Sara Zemmahi, wearing a hijab, holds her campaign flyer with the slogan “Different, but united for you” as she poses in an interview for Reuters ahead of the upcoming French local elections in the market de La Mosson in Montpellier, France, June 5, 2021. Photo taken on June 5, 2021. REUTERS / Yiming Woo

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


Zemmahi is not dogmatic about his scarf. she often removes it from her laboratory for hygienic reasons. Zemmahi’s other candidates said the campaign photo was intended to illustrate how they reflected local demographics.

The case arose after the number 2 of the National Rally of Le Pen questioned Macron’s credentials as a defender of secular values ​​in the face of what the president calls “Islamist separatism”.

“Is this how you fight separatism? Jordan Bardella tweeted with a copy of the flyer.

The LaRem line was that there should be no room for overt display of religious symbols on election campaign materials, replied Stanislas Guerini, the party’s general secretary. Soon after, he withdrew his support.

“The moment you wear a religious symbol on a campaign poster, it becomes a political act,” LaRem spokesman Roland Lescure told Reuters. “I prefer that our candidates and our elected officials speak to all citizens.”

French law does not prohibit the wearing of the hijab or other religious symbols in the images of election leaflets.

LaRem lawmaker Coralie Dubost regretted her party’s position: “She should have a place in our party, whether she wears a headscarf or not.”

On the market square, the house painter Karim el Ameraouy wished Zemmahi good luck.

“A veil doesn’t prevent you from being French,” he said.

Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Written by Richard Lough; Editing by Giles Elgood

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