France has blocked a campaign launched by the Council of Europe against anti-Muslim hate speech that promotes diversity among women and their freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.
Speaking to LCI TV, Sarah El Hairy, the minister of state for youth and engagement attached to the minister of national education, youth and sport, said the campaign by the council's Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Division shocked her.
The campaign is against the values of France, El Hairy claimed.
"Wearing a headscarf is encouraged in the campaign's video. We condemn this. France conveyed its disapproval of this campaign (to the Council of Europe) and the campaign was cancelled."
They have defended secularism and religious freedom, but this campaign defended the headscarf, she added.
"I was profoundly shocked," 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be condemned and because of this France made clear its extremely strong disapproval and hence the campaign has now been withdrawn as of today," she said late Tuesday, confirming that Paris issued an official protest through diplomatic channels.
After France ensured the cancellation of the campaign, the Council of Europe deleted the related posts from the campaign's Twitter account.
The European Commission provided funding to the campaign as part of the law, equality and citizenship program, according to Le Figaro daily.
The Council of Europe launched the campaign against the discrimination of women wearing headscarves last week.
The online campaign – co-financed by the European Union – was launched last week by the Strasbourg-based institution and touched a nerve among the right in France where campaigning is ramping up ahead of next spring's presidential election.
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.
Initially passing largely unnoticed, the campaign was seized upon by anti-immigration far-right contenders seeking to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in next year's vote, and who fiercely oppose hijab-wearing in public.
"Islam is the enemy of freedom. This campaign is the enemy of truth," tweeted far-right commentator Eric Zemmour, who has yet to declare his candidacy, and who some polls predict could make it into a second-round runoff against Macron.
In a country where secularism is the cornerstone of national values and whose election campaign has been fought mostly on right-wing territory, the outcry went beyond the extreme right.
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."
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.
"We have taken down these tweet messages while we reflect on a better presentation of this project," a Council of Europe spokesperson told Agence France-Presse (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)," he added.
The Council did not confirm that the pulling of the campaign was a direct result of French pressure.
Anti-Muslim hatred has significantly risen in Europe in recent years. Far-right extremism and xenophobia have fueled Islamophobia in Western countries, where terrorist attacks by Daesh and al-Qaida as well as a migrant crisis are used as excuses to legitimize those views. France, home to the largest Muslim minority in Europe, estimated at 5 million or more out of a population of 67 million, took the helm of Islamophobic efforts to silence members of the minority group. Critics denounced Macron for trying to galvanize far-right citizens to vote for him in 2022 April presidential elections.
Macron's anti-Muslim rhetoric sparked a wave of anti-Muslim feelings among far-right groups. The number of Islamophobic incidents in France rose sharply last year. According to the National Observatory of Islamophobia, there were 235 attacks on Muslims in France in 2020, up from 154 the previous year, a 53% jump. Most of the attacks took place in the Ile-de-France (greater Paris), Rhones-Alpes and Paca regions of the country. Attacks on mosques jumped 35% in the same year. A global coalition of 25 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) asked the European Commission to investigate France for its state-sponsored support of Islamophobia.
The French bill was criticized worldwide because it targets the Muslim community and imposes restrictions on almost every aspect of their lives. It allows intervening in mosques and the associations responsible for their administration as well as controlling the finances of associations and NGOs belonging to Muslims. It also restricts the education choices of the Muslim community by preventing families from giving children home education. The bill also prohibits patients from choosing doctors based on gender for religious or other reasons and makes "secularism education" compulsory for all public officials.
Most recently, France announced last week its plans to close seven more mosques and associations across the country by the end of 2021 on the pretext of "radicalism" as part of its Islamophobic campaign against the country's Muslim population.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has frequently criticized the French government's anti-Muslim campaign and policies. Erdoğan said some Western countries insist on not taking measures against growing anti-Islam sentiment. Erdoğan also called on Turkish institutions to take action on issues related to Muslims and Turks in these countries.
Last year, the Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed Macron’s “Islamic separatism” remarks for having a distorted approach and attempting to control migrant communities in Europe through the establishment of fabricated concepts.
“It is nobody’s business to subject our exalted religion, whose name means 'peace,' to false and distorted ideas in the guise of trying to 'enlighten' it,” the foreign ministry's statement read.