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European rights body pulls pro-hijab campaign after French outcry

The pan European rights body the Council of Europe has pulled a campaign promoting diversity among women and their freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf after it sparked an outcry in fiercely secular France.

A large group of people in a crowd, including some in hijabs, protesting against Islamophobia in France
The Muslim headscarf is a contentious subject in France. Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt / AFP

The online campaign, co-financed by the European Union, was launched last week in Strasbourg – but touched a nerve in France, particularly among right-wing politicians.

Tweeted images showed portraits of two smiling young women spliced in half and fused together to show one with hair uncovered and the other wearing the hijab. “Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in hijab,” said one of the slogans. “How boring it would be if everyone looked the same? Celebrate diversity and respect hijab,” it added.

The campaign was seized upon by anti-immigration extreme right contenders in France seeking to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s vote, and who fiercely oppose hijab-wearing in public.

READ ALSO What does laïcité and secularism really mean in France?

“Islam is the enemy of freedom. This campaign is the enemy of truth,” tweeted far-right commentator and potential presidential candidate Eric Zemmour.

“This European campaign promoting the Islamist veil is scandalous and indecent at a time when millions of women courageously fight against this enslavement,” added far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

In a country where secularism is a cornerstone of national values, the outcry went beyond the extreme right.

Paris region chief Valerie Pecresse, a possible contender against Macron from the traditional right, said she was “astonished” by the campaign and added the hijab was “not a symbol of freedom but of submission”.

Former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who is also seeking the right-wing nomination to stand for president, added: “I would have wanted the people who had the bad idea of this campaign to have asked the women of (Taliban-ruled) Kabul who are fighting precisely not to have this veil.”

Wearing the hijab (the Muslim headscarf) is legal in France but is not allowed in certain public spaces including schools and government offices. The full-face Muslim veil is banned in all spaces.

OPINION: Headscarves are legal in France, so why the hysteria?

Macron’s government also weighed in, saying it had urged the Council of Europe to pull the campaign. France is one of the 47 member states of the Council which acts as the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I was profoundly shocked,” French Minister for Young People Sarah El Hairy told LCI TV. “It is the opposite of the values that France defends, it is promoting the wearing of the hijab.

“This is to be condemned and because of this France made clear its extremely strong disapproval and hence the campaign has now been withdrawn as of today,” she said on Tuesday, confirming that Paris lodged an official protest through diplomatic channels.

READ ALSO ‘My body, my choice’ – French Muslim women speak out about wearing the headscarf

“We have taken down these tweet messages while we reflect on a better presentation of this project,” a Council of Europe spokesman told AFP.

“The tweets reflected statements made by individual participants in one of the project workshops, and do not represent the views of the Council of Europe or its Secretary General” Marija Pejcinovic Buric added.

The Council did not confirm that the pulling of the campaign was a direct result of French pressure.

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POLITICS

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

France braced on Monday for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension reform, with the government of President Emmanuel Macron and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruption.

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on January 19, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

A police source told AFP that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds on Tuesday, with 1.2 million seen as the upper limit at 240 demonstrations around the country.

With unions warning more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The president’s ministers and their opponents are desperately seeking to sway public opinion ahead of what is expected to be a bitter and costly standoff over the next month.

READ MORE: LATEST: What to expect for Tuesday’s French pension strikes

Senior hard-left MP Mathilde Panot from the France Unbowed (LFI) party accused Macron and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are expected to cripple public transport and other services again.

“They’re the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country,” she told BFM TV while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a “provocation.”

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said Saturday that left-wing political parties were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism.”

Macron’s reputation

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron made the change part of this re-election manifesto in April last year and he insists it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced and that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained.”

For pro-business Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more”, failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law on Monday.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, as well as for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children and for people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said Sunday, calling it “non-negotiable.”

Despite the policy being a flagship of his second mandate following his 2022 re-election, Macron has so far sought to stay above the fray and commented only occasionally on the growing tensions.

Darmanin’s intervention has not helped reduce strains, with the tough-talking minister telling the Le Parisien daily Saturday the left were defending an idea of a “society without work and effort”.

Parliamentary battle

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get their pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published on Monday in Les Echos newspaper, showed that 61 percent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of 3.0 percentage points from January 12.

A majority of French people — 56 percent — think reforming the pension system is necessary, the data showed.

But the proportion convinced of the need for change is falling, down five points since January 12, the survey group said.

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