A young, headscarf-wearing candidate running in France's regional elections has sparked intense controversy that touches on questions of religion and feminism in French politics. The issue is particularly sensitive at a time when the French government is mulling a ban against the full veil in public areas.
There is not much difference between Ilham Moussaid and any other young, aspiring leftist politician in France. Except one thing. Moussaid, a practicing Muslim in her '20s, wears a headscarf. And in a country like France, which adheres to a sharp separation between religion and state, Moussaid's candidacy in March regional elections has sparked a national debate.
Critics say the Muslim veil is a sign of female subjugation. But Moussaid, who is running in the southern French Vaucluse region as a member of the far-left New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), argues that she can be a feminist and also wear a headscarf.
In remarks to reporters, Moussaid says there is no difference between her and other candidates who practice their religions, except her faith is visible through her headscarf. Her cause is championed by the NPA's charismatic young head, Olivier Besancenot.
In a recent interview on French radio, Besancenot denounced what he described an atmosphere of Islamophobia in France.
But critics, from both the political left and right, have come out against Moussaid's candidacy. Some say the presence of an overtly Muslim candidate in a far-left party with Communist origins is particularly ironic. Others suggest it is a bid for media attention and votes in the working class, immigrant-heavy Vaucluse region.
Mariette Sineau, a political analyst at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, says the debate comes at a particularly sensitive time.
As Sineau points out, the French government has just wrapped up three months of town-hall debates on what it means to be French, which critics say has also focused unfairly on France's estimated five million Muslims. The center-right government is also considering whether to ban women from wearing a full, face-covering veil, in some public areas.
At most, only a handful of women wearing the veil hold political office in France. French feminists have largely been silent over Moussaid's candidacy, although one group criticized it.
Still, Sineau notes that French political parties are beginning to open their doors to candidates of diverse ethnic origins. And since taking office in 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed three female Muslim politicians as ministers, all with immigrant backgrounds.