French far-right National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen canceled a meeting on Tuesday with Lebanon’s grand mufti, its top cleric for Sunni Muslims, after refusing to wear a headscarf for the encounter.
Le Pen, among the frontrunners for the presidency, is using a two-day visit to Lebanon to bolster her foreign policy credentials nine weeks from the April 23 first round, and may be partly targeting potential Franco-Lebanese votes.
Many Lebanese fled to France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, during their country’s 1975-1990 civil war and became French citizens.
After meeting Christian President Michel Aoun – her first public handshake with a head of state – and Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday, she had been scheduled to meet the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian
He heads the Dar al-Fatwa, the top religious authority for Sunni Muslims in the multireligious country.
“I met the grand mufti of Al-Azhar,” she told reporters, referring to a visit in 2015 to Cairo’s 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning. “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 said.
The cleric’s press office said Le Pen’s aides had been informed beforehand that a headscarf was required for the meeting and had been “surprised by her refusal”.
But it was no surprise in the French political context.
French law bans headscarves in the public service and for high school pupils, in the name of church-state separation and equal rights for women. Le Pen wants to extend this ban to all public places, a measure that would affect Muslims most of all.