French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and leader of the National Front, canceled a Tuesday meeting with Lebanon's grand mufti, its top cleric for Sunni Muslims, after refusing to wear a headscarf for the encounter. 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.
Officials at the Dar al-Fatwa said Le Pen had been told in advance she’d need to put on a headscarf before meeting the Grand Mufti. Reminded again on arriving at his Beirut headquarters, she refused and left. “Dar al-Fatwa regrets this inappropriate behavior,” the council said in a statement
"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.
An aide of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, gives a head scarf to Le Pen, Feb. 20.
Le Pen disputed she broke a prior agreement. “I told them Monday that I wasn’t going to wear a headscarf. They didn’t cancel the meeting and so I therefore assumed that they had then accepted that I wouldn’t be wearing a headscarf,” she told reporters after the incident, according to Agence France-Presse.
As Reuters reports, Le Pen, who is a frontrunner for the presidency, is hoping to boost her foreign policy credentials with a two-day visit to Lebanon nine weeks from the April 23 first round, and may be partly targeting potential Franco-Lebanese votes. 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".
Marine Le Pen shakes hands with Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai of Lebanon
But, as Reuters observes, 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.
Furthermore, as discussed last month, buoyed by the election of President Donald Trump in the United States and by Britain's vote to leave the European Union, Le Pen's anti-immigration, anti-EU National Front (FN) hopes for similar populist momentum in France. Like Trump, she has said radical Islamism must be faced head on, although she has toned down her party's rhetoric to attract more mainstream support and possibly even woo some Muslim voters disillusioned with France's traditional parties.
After meeting Hariri on Monday, Le Pen went against current French policy in Syria by describing President Bashar al-Assad as the "only viable solution" for preventing Islamic State from taking power in Syria. "I explained clearly that ... Bashar al-Assad was obviously today a much more reassuring solution for France than Islamic State would be if it came to power in Syria," she told reporters.
“With geopolitics, one must often make the choice in favor of the lesser evil and for me, the lesser evil is Bashar al-Assad," said said in an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour. On Monday, Le Pen told Hariri that in her opinion the only realistic alternative to Assad was a Syria ruled by Islamic State. The French government insists Assad must leave office to establish peace in Syria, while saying it’s willing to talk to his government to arrange a transition.
Hariri, whose family has close links to conservative former French President Jacques Chirac and still has a home in France, issued a strongly-worded statement after their meeting.
"The most serious error would be to link Islam and Muslims on the one hand and terrorism on the other," Hariri said. "The Lebanese and Arabs, like most of the world, considers that France is the home of human rights and the republican state makes no distinction between citizens on ethnic, religious or class grounds."