Sometimes, it’s not what’s in your head, but on it -- or rather not on it – that gets you remembered. France’s populist candidate for President, Marine Le Pen, just had such a moment. She’s feeling good about it.
Le Pen, who is running for her country’s top job on the right-wing National Front ticket, was in Lebanon this week to meet that country’s president. She also had a session scheduled with the country’s top Sunni Muslim cleric.
Her talk with President Michel Aoun, who is Christian, went well enough, according to most press reports. But when it came time to meet with Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, the French candidate was told that women were required to don headscarves before entering the presence of the religious leader.
Le Pen refused, and after a few awkward moments between her staff and the sheikh’s, abruptly called off the audience and left. “I consider the headscarf a symbol of a woman’s submission,” she said afterward. “I will not put on the veil.”
Whether Le Pen was truly surprised by the dust-up, or playing to her audience at home is an open question. She insists that her team informed the mufti’s staff the night before that she would show up bare-headed. Derian’s camp says she had agreed to don the veil.
Le Pen, who is leading in presidential polls before April’s first round of national elections, has long called for limits on immigrants coming to France – many of whom are Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa. Her dramatic, attention-getting play in Beirut may not convince centrist French voters who are wary of her hardline positions, but it is certain to galvanize her core supporters.
Le Pen’s timing could not have been better. On the same day that she snubbed the Muslim mufti, police arrested three suspects in southern France for plotting what they called “an imminent terror attack.” That headline, juxtaposed with Le Pen’s face-down of a Muslim grandee, will reinforce her warning that France already has too many immigrants.
The Lebanon incident was covered quite differently by various news organizations. The Associated Press included this quote from Le Pen, referring to herself in the third person: “I note that when Marine Le Pen refuses to don the headscarf, it is criticized, but when Michelle Obama refused to do it in Saudi Arabia, it was considered admirable.”
Al Jazeera, which is funded by the ruling family of Qatar, was less generous. “This was a trap and a set-up because she wanted to send a message to her own voters and supporters that she somehow refused to respect the local customs in a Muslim-majority country,” its online report noted.
Note to Al Jazeera: you got it right, but for the wrong reason.
Le Pen has the same ability to sense the voters’ mood in her country as a long-shot candidate in the United States named Trump demonstrated last year on his way to the White House. That she is being criticized for taking a strong stand is only further evidence of the media’s double-standard toward conservative politicians.
Indeed, America’s former first lady, Michelle Obama, was credited with making “a bold political statement” when she declined the veil during her husband’s visit to the kingdom in 2015. Another former first lady, Laura Bush, also appeared with then-King Abdullah without head covering in 2006.
The Catholic Church used to request that women shroud their heads when they met with the Pope, but that custom has nearly faded from Vatican protocol. Hillary Clinton, when she was first lady, met Saint Pope John Paul II, her hair free to blow in the wind.
Bellwether thinks Le Pen smelled an opportunity to demonstrate strength and embrace Western values, and took it. She might not be popular in part of Lebanon, but her actions there shouted: “Vive La France!”
John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."