Beirut — France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen capped her visit to Lebanon with controversy on Tuesday when she refused to wear a headscarf to meet the country’s top Sunni Muslim cleric.
On her last day in the Mediterranean country, Le Pen arrived at Sheikh Abdellatif Deryan’s office in Beirut and was offered a white shawl to cover her blonde hair.
The National Front candidate promptly refused and made a brief statement to journalists before leaving.
"The highest Sunni authority in the world had not had this requirement, so I have no reason to," Le Pen said, referring to her 2015 visit to Al-Azhar, the prestigious Egyptian institution of Sunni Islamic learning.
She said she had told Deryan’s office on Monday that she would not wear a headscarf: "They did not cancel the meeting, so I thought they would accept that I will not wear the scarf.
"They wanted to impose this on me, to present me with a fait accompli. Well, no one presents me with a fait accompli," the candidate said.
Islamic dress is a hot-button issue in France, where the full-face veil is banned in public places.
Deryan heads Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon.
In a statement on Tuesday, the body said "its press office had informed the presidential candidate, through one of her assistants, of the need to cover her head when she meets his eminence, according to the protocol assumed by Dar al-Fatwa".
At a news conference to cap her trip, Le Pen insisted she "has never confused the religion of Islam with fundamentalist Islam".
"I oppose Islam as a political project. I am fighting a war against fundamentalist Islamists," she said.
Shunned by European leaders over her party’s stance on immigration and its anti-EU message, Le Pen aimed to boost her international credibility with her first visit to a foreign head of state, President Michel Aoun.
The FN leader, whose party takes an anti-immigrant stance, also met Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Le Pen has met few top foreign officials since taking control of the FN in 2011. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused to meet with her.
After leaving Deryan’s office, Le Pen headed to Bkerkeh, north of Beirut, to meet Maronite Catholic Patriarch Beshara Rai.
In France, polls show Republican candidate Francois Fillon has made up some of the ground he lost after a financial scandal broke last month and would make it into France’s presidential run-off instead of the independent Emmanuel Macron, a poll by Elabe said.
Fillon gained three percentage points from the previous Elabe poll February 8 to about 21% while Macron shed five points to about 18.5%, the pollster said.
Le Pen would still get the most votes in the first ballot on April 23 but she would lose to Fillon by 56% to 44% in the second round. Le Pen’s support was at about 28% up as much as two points, Bloomberg reports.