Hijab, headscarves that some Muslim women wear, was on Friday at the centre stage of French presidential election campaign as women wearing it confronted both President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen. The women asked why their clothing should be subject of politics.
Le Pen has been pushing to ban hijab in France, which has Western Europe's largest Muslim population.
Many Muslims in France feel the presidential campaign has unfairly stigmatised their faith.
As Le Pen greeted supporters at a farmers' market in the southern town of Pertuis, a woman in a blue-and-white hijab approached her and asked, “What is the headscarf doing in politics?”
Le Pen defended her position and calling hijab a “uniform imposed over time by people who have a radical vision of Islam”.
The woman replied, "That's not true. I started to wear the veil when I was an older woman. For me, it is a sign of being a grandmother.”
The woman noted that her father had served in the French military for 15 years.
Le Pen's opposition to the headscarf has encapsulated what her critics say makes her dangerous to French unity, by stigmatising millions of French Muslims. Le Pen would also slash immigration and wants to outlaw ritual slaughter, which would restrict French Muslims' and Jews' access to kosher and halal meat.
Macron too debated a woman in a Muslim headscarf on Friday in a lively exchange on broadcaster France-Info. He sought to distance himself from Le Pen by saying he would not change any law, but defended an existing ban on headscarves in schools as part of secular French principles.
The woman, Sara El Attar, said she had felt insulted by previous comments by Macron where he had suggested that headscarves destabilise relations between men and women.
She said French women “have been castigated these recent years for a simple scarf, without any leader deigning to denounce this injustice". She repeated the argument that many veiled women in France make: That people mistakenly think they are veiled not through personal choice, but because men make them wear headscarves.
Macron sought to defend his record, saying “For me personally, the question of the headscarf is not an obsession."
But critics say Macron's government stoked prejudice against Muslims by cracking down on what it has claimed are efforts by some Muslims to carve out spaces in France for stricter interpretations of Islam. The government has gone after some schools, mosques and Islamic associations.
With AP inputs