French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has sought to soften a campaign pledge to ban women from wearing the Islamic headscarf in public ahead of a run-off round of voting against Emmanuel Macron on Sunday.
The shift comes after both candidates encountered women wearing headscarves on the campaign trail, reigniting a longstanding debate in France over the place of religious garb in a staunchly secular republic.
Macron, the French president, congratulated a young woman in Strasbourg who said she wore the Islamic headscarf by choice and called herself a feminist, while Le Pen faced questions from a grandmother at a market in southern France over why she should not be able to wear hers.
Soon after Le Pen appeared to soften her stance, although she reiterated her opposition to the garment in general, which she has called “an Islamist uniform” that she said amounted to supporting an extreme anti-western interpretation of the Muslim faith.
On Saturday Le Pen said she recognised that these were “complex problems” and that “there will be debate” in parliament before any new ban was introduced. “The National Assembly will be able to weigh in,” she added. Legislative elections are taking place on June 12 and 19.
The measure would come only after focusing on other initiatives designed to fight the threat posed by Islamist extremists, Le Pen’s campaign lieutenants then insisted in the media.
“Our goal is not to fight against women, it is to protect and liberate those on whom the [Islamic headscarf] is imposed either by social or family pressure,” said campaign spokesperson Sébastien Chenu on BFM TV. “The target is not the 70-year-old grandmother . . . but the Islamist movement.”
The move to calm the controversy is a sign of how Le Pen is seeking to sand off the harsh edges of her platform in an effort to broaden her appeal ahead of the April 24 run-off.
Polls now show Macron’s lead over Le Pen widening slightly to 54 per cent to 46 per cent ahead of a televised debate on Wednesday. Analysts predict that the debate will be crucial in swaying undecided voters or those who may abstain.
In the final week of campaigning, Le Pen has stuck with her strategy of focusing on cost of living issues, instead of playing up immigration and security, the issues her far-right movement has long been known for.
Meanwhile, Macron has courted leftwing voters with new pledges on the green transition and promised not to be “dogmatic” about his plan to boost the retirement age to 65, hinting it could be scaled back to 64.
Although France does not collect data on its population by race or religion, studies have estimated that there are about 5.7mn Muslims among its total population of 67mn, making it the biggest Muslim community in western Europe. Many moved from France’s former colonies in Africa starting in the 1950s when workers were needed in industries from mining to cars, with successive generations now having become French.
France, which established a strict separation of the church and the state in 1905, has some of the most restrictive legislation on the wearing of religious symbols and garments. Civil servants are barred from wearing any, as are pupils in state primary and secondary schools. In 2011, it banned women from wearing face-covering veils in public, a measure colloquially known as the anti-burka law.
The country’s relationship with Islam has recently been complicated by a series of Islamist terrorist attacks that have killed more than 200 people since 2015. Since then successive governments have sought to track down extremists while not stigmatising the entire Muslim population.
Last year, Macron passed a law he said was aimed at fighting “separatism” that gave the government more powers to close down mosques or religious groups if it finds that they advocate violence or incite hate.