Right-wing French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen canceled a meeting with a top Muslim official in Lebanon Tuesday, asserting the ideals put forth by France’s conservatives by refusing to wear a headscarf.
Islamic symbols have become part of the ongoing debate about the place of religion in France’s secular culture. In 2011, the country banned burqas and niqabs, which are full face coverings worn by some Muslim women, from public spaces. Headscarves and other religious symbols have been barred from schools since 2004.
As the two cultures continue to clash, headscarves have become divisive symbols, especially for far right conservatives seeking to instate anti-immigration policies or pushes to leave behind the European Union amid a Syrian refugee crisis.
Ms. Le Pen, who is running on the National Front party platform, is one of several frontrunners gunning to win the first round of presidential elections on April 23. She intended to use the trip to Lebanon to bolster her foreign policy credentials ahead of the race, while also seeking to find favor with French voters of Lebanese origin or heritage.
After meeting President Michel Aoun, a Christian, and Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday, she was slated to meet with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, head of the Dar al-Fatwa, the top religious authority for Sunni Muslims.
But upon arriving for the meeting, she said she was surprised to be told a headscarf was required and refused to wear the garment.
“I personally greeted her at the door of the Edict House and wanted to hand her a white headscarf that was in my hand, she refused to take it," Khaldoun Awas, spokesman for the Grand Mufti, explained, according to CNN. "I urged her to put it on, she refused and said she would not put it on and walked out without attending the previously agreed upon meeting with the Mufti. The Edict House regrets such inappropriate behavior at such meetings."
The candidate noted that she has held meetings with other Muslim leaders without any requirements to cover her hair in the past.
"I met the grand mufti of Al-Azhar," she told reporters, referencing a 2015 trip a center of Islamic teaching in Cairo. "The highest Sunni authority didn't have this requirement, but it doesn't matter.”
“You can pass on my respects to the grand mufti, but I will not cover myself up," she added.
A spokesperson for the grand mufti’s office says it informed Le Pen’s aides prior to scheduling the meeting that she would be required to wear a headscarf.
The refusal may help Le Pen to find favor with voters on France’s far right, but it’s unclear if the trip will help her to gain the support of Muslim voters in France.
Le Pen stoked the flames further by telling Mr. Hariri Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a “more reassuring option” to govern Syria than the Islamic State. Describing him as “the only viable solution” to counteracting radical Islamic terrorism in the country, Le Pen broke with current French foreign policy in remarks that raised concern for Muslim officials.
"The most serious error would be to link Islam and Muslims on the one hand and terrorism on the other," Hariri told Reuters. "The Lebanese and Arabs, like most of the world, considers that France is the home of human rights and the republican state makes no distinction between citizens on ethnic, religious or class grounds."
This report contains material from Reuters.