A heated debate over France’s values reignited across the country this week, the latest fight in a culture war that has raged for years in universities, the halls of government and even on the beach.

This time, it started with a mother wearing a hijab on a school trip.

Veils and headscarves are political and social lightning rods in France, touching on issues so sensitive — secularism, feminism and the integration of Muslims — that they seem to inspire anger wherever they appear. Although the mother broke no laws by wearing the garment, which does not cover the face, she enraged far-right members of the local assembly that the schoolchildren were visiting.

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During the visit last week, in the central city of Dijon, one of the politicians, Julien Odoul, asked that the woman uncover herself.

“Madame has ample time to wear her veil at home, on the street, but not here, not today,” he said, citing France’s values of secularism, known as laicite.

In a post on Twitter that included video of the incident, Mr Odoul said wearing the veil was a “provocation” that couldn’t be “tolerated” after a fatal attack on Paris police officers this month by a Muslim among their ranks.

A commotion broke out. Other members of the assembly, including the president, objected to the request. The far-right politicians, who belong to the National Rally party, stormed out. And in a moment captured by a picture that soon spread widely, the woman’s son cried in her arms.

She has declined to speak to the news media, but the confrontation quickly gained national attention. Battle lines were swiftly drawn.

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On one side, there are those who say the veil is a symbol, an archaic garment that has no place in France’s secular republic. On the other are those who argue that veiled women are subjected to barely hidden racism and religious discrimination by people who refuse to accept French multiculturalism.

In an interview with the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, an advocacy group, the mother who went to Dijon said the incident had “destroyed her life.” The mother also intends to file a legal complaint.

The New York Times

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