Macron condemns those who weaponise secularism amid veil debate

Comments come after French upper house backs bill to ban wearing of headscarves by Muslim mothers on school trips

epa07960102 French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the Global Forum on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Humanity (GFAIH) at the Institut de France in Paris, France, 30 October 2019.  EPA/LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL  MAXPPP OUT
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French President Emmanuel Macron condemned those who use secularism to ‘sow hatred and division’ on Wednesday, after the French upper house backed a bill to ban the wearing of headscarves by Muslim mothers accompanying school trips.

The French leader evoked the concept of “laïcité” or secularism – during a speech at the inauguration of a European Centre for Judaism in Paris.

"Laïcité is a tenet of fraternity that should live in each French person like a compass in their relationship to other citizens, that is essentially a form of French civility," Mr Macron said.

"And I wanted to simply recall it at this moment in our nation's history, where these values of unity and cohesiveness are sometimes distorted and used by those who, seeking to sow hatred and division, use it to fight against this or that religion," he added.

Mr Macron made his remarks shortly after the French upper house backed a bill to ban the wearing of headscarves by Muslim mothers accompanying school trips. The president opposes the bill and his En Marche! party’s dominance in the French lower house means that it is unlikely it will become law.

The vote follows the intervention from Julian Odoul, of the far-right National Rally party, who demanded a woman accompanying a group of school children to a regional council meeting remove her headscarf “in the name of our secular principles”.

The woman was with her son who became upset by what happened.

Since 2004, wearing headscarves and other religious attire in French public schools has been banned. In 2010, the government passed a law prohibiting people from wearing a full-face veil in public spaces.

The French president stoked further controversy this week when reports emerged that he was being interviewed by Valeurs Actuel, a weekly newspaper known for its far-right views. Mr Macron is the first incumbent French president to grant an interview to the newspaper since Jacques Chirac.

In the interview, which was published on Wednesday, he discussed secularism, asylum rights, immigration and Islam.

Speaking on the veil, he said: “My problem is not the mother who wears a veil while accompanying her child on school outing ... This one is not lost: she has put her child in public school and she comes for a school trip,”

He added that allowing Muslim women to wear the veil on school trips may help the country “win back lost people” – people who haven’t integrated into French society.

The " main problem”, said the head of state, "is the children who are out of school".

"But the child who is well integrated, whose parents are Muslim, he does not bother anyone. Her mother has a scarf, she does not bother anyone, " he added.

Marlène Schiappa, the Secretary of State for Equality between women and men, also weighed in on the debate. She said that although she thought wearing a headscarf didn’t help liberate women, she did not support the proposed law to ban religious symbols on school trips.

"If we exclude [women who wear a veil], I fear that we will exclude parents of children in French [public schools]," she said.

Leader of the Senate Republicans in France, Bruno Retailleau, had been asked to pull the proposed legislation in light of the mosque shooting in Bayonne on Monday, but refused.

Police have arrested a 84-year-old man, a former far-right candidate, for setting fire to the main entrance of a mosque in the southern French town and shooting two people.