French president says Muslim hijab ‘not my business’

President Emmanuel Macron has said that it is “not his business” whether Muslim women wear a hijab in public spaces - but that it “is his business” when it comes to public services.

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The President commented on the row over the hijab that has erupted in the French government in recent weeks, and sought to clarify his position when asked.

Speaking at the Choose La Réunion summit in the French island department, he said: “[Whether someone] wears a hijab in a public space is not my business. [But] wearing a hijab in public services, in schools, when we are educating our children, is my business.

“In public services, we have a duty of neutrality. When we are educating our children, we ask that there are no ostentatious signs of religion. Apart from that, what happens in the public space, is not the business of the State or of the President of the Republic.”

He continued: “The hijab is used in certain circumstances, certain neighbourhoods, by some, as an instrument of separatism in the Republic...There are today, some women and men who say, ‘Because of my religion I no longer adhere to the values of the Republic', and that is a problem for me. I have a problem with demands that become political.

But Mr Macron clarified: “I ask all of our citizens to respect all of the laws of the Republic, but I have nothing to say about their spiritual lives. That is secularism. We should not confuse the issues.”

Values in public spaces

Mr Macron was responding to calls from Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National party, to ban the hijab and other ostentatious religious symbols “in all public spaces”.

His comments were also seen as a response to minister for Education, Jean Michel Blanquer, who recently said that the hijab “was not appropriate in our society”, as it went “against the value of equality between men and women”.

Recent debates have centered on whether it is acceptable for women to wear the veil - especially the niqab, which covers the entirety of a woman’s face apart from her eyes - when coming to drop off or collect their children from school.

Schools are traditionally considered to be neutral, secular locations in France.

Mr Blanquer said: “The law does not forbid veiled women from accompanying their children [at the school gates, but] the veil in itself is not appropriate in our society [because of] what it says about the female condition, and what it says about our values.”

The “laȋcité” debate

The current debate also comes after French far-right MPs - including RN politician Julien Odoul - controversially and “violently” challenged a mother wearing a hijab while accompanying her son on a school trip to a regional council meeting of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté.

The woman, named as Fatima E., has now filed an official legal complaint for "incitement of racial hatred" and said that the children present were "shocked and traumatised" by the episode.

France regularly discusses the meaning of the principle of “laȋcité” - secularism - and the separation of church and State. Very obvious religious clothing and symbols are often the target of much political and social debate.

For example, some Muslim women may choose to wear the hijab - which covers the hair, and is also often used as shorthand for modest dress that covers the whole body except the hands, feet, and face; the niqab, which covers the face except for the eyes; or the burqa, which is a total body covering.

There have also been recent debates over the legality of wearing the “burkini” in public pools. The burkini is a more recent design intended to allow Muslim women to go swimming without uncovering their skin.

Other (but often much less controversial) examples include the turban worn by Sikh men, or large or obvious necklaces with the sign of the Christian cross.

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