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France’s Macron reignites Muslim headscarf row

French President Minister Emmanuel Macron added fuel to the fire by calling the headscarf a “symbol that detaches one from the republic,” while accusing some Muslim women of promoting sectarianism.

Macron was visiting French overseas territory of Reunion Island on Thursday and he spoke to reporters regarding the Muslim headscarf issue, which is currently a topic of hot debate in the European country. “In some neighborhoods, some people use headscarf as a symbol to break one’s connection with the republic; this is called sectarianism,” he said.

“Wearing of the headscarf in public spaces is not my business; however in public services, at school and while educating children, the headscarf issue is my business. That is what secularism is about,” Macron said, defending the idea that school teachers and public officials should stay neutral when it comes to religious matters.

France has the largest Muslim minority in Europe, estimated at 5 million or more out of a population of 67 million. The place of religion and religious symbols worn in public can be a matter of controversy in the staunchly secular country. For years, rights groups have argued that France’s secular laws foster Islamophobia and discriminate against Muslim women. There is no law banning headscarves inside the council’s building, or any other public place except in schools, where teachers and employees must observe “religious neutrality”.

Recently, famous French newspaper Le Figaro’s Chief Editor Yves Threard had spoken to the LCI channel and said: “I hate the religion of Islam. If I see a Muslim woman on the same bus as I me, I’ll leave the bus.” Two weeks ago, French far-right lawmaker Julien Odoul had requested that a Muslim woman take off her veil in a meeting in eastern Besancon and attacked her verbally. After the incident, the issue sparked discussions and statements targeting Muslims that have risen recently. In an open letter to Macron published in Le Monde daily last week, 90 academics, directors, actors and journalists have called on the president to condemn the attack by Odoul against the Muslim woman.

France was the first country in Europe to ban Islamic face veils, such as the burqa and the niqab, in public places in 2010. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the ban but said the law could appear excessive and encourage stereotyping. France was also embroiled in a row over bans on the burkini, a full-body Islamic swimsuit, in resorts around the Riviera. Since then, French Muslims have growing concerns, saying that decisions taken by some municipal authorities to ban the burkini could lead to the further stigmatization of Muslims.

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