PARIS (REUTERS) - French lawyer Sarah Asmeta wears a hijab at work but that means she is banned by her local Bar Council from representing clients in the courtroom.
She has been fighting to overturn that rule.
Next Wednesday (March 2), France's highest court is due to rule on Asmeta's case in a judgment that could set a nationwide precedent and will resonate in a country where the hijab - a headscarf worn by some Muslim women - has become a flashpoint in a debate over identity and immigration.
"I cannot accept the idea that in my country, to practice a profession, of which I am capable, I need to undress myself," Asmeta, 30, told Reuters.
Asmeta, who is French-Syrian, was the first person in her family to pursue studies in law. She was also the first person at her law school IXAD in the northern city of Lille to wear a hijab.
Back in 2019, when she was due to take an oath and enter the profession as a trainee barrister, there was no specific law that said she could not wear her hijab.
But in the months that followed her taking the oath, the Lille Bar Council passed an internal rule banning any signs of political, philosophical and religious conviction to be worn with the gown in court.
Asmeta challenged that as targeted and discriminatory.
She lost the case in an appeals court in 2020, pushing the matter up to the highest court, the Court of Cassation. The March 2 judgment will lay the groundwork for Bar Councils nationwide, Patrick Poirret, the attorney-general, told the court last week.
While religious symbols and clothing are banned for public servants due to France's principle of "laicite" (secularism) - the separation of religion and state - this does not extend to independent professionals like lawyers.
But above these legal specifics, the hijab carries a symbolic weight and is a recurring theme in French debates around so-called Republican values and national identity.
In France, Muslims represent around 6 per cent of the population, according to the Observatory of Laicite, many of whom have origins in African, Middle Eastern or other countries that were formerly colonised by France.
In past years, as politics has veered to the right, French lawmakers and politicians have sought to extend restrictions on wearing the hijab, for example, to cover mothers who accompany their children on school trips and football players.
As a presidential election in April approaches, candidates have zeroed in on identity issues, including the hijab, although Asmeta's case has not been referenced.
Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement Nationale said she would ban the garment from public space entirely. Right-wing Les Republicains candidate Valerie Pecresse, referring to the symbol of the republic, said in a campaign speech: "Marianne is not a veiled woman."
Currently in France, a majority of Bar Councils, including the largest in Paris, have internal rules that do not allow religious symbols such as the hijab.
Of Bar Councils representing 75 per cent of practitioners, 56 per cent have banned religious symbols to be worn with the gown, according to a survey requested by Poirret for this case.
"Within this general ban there is a precise and indirect discrimination (of Muslim women)," Asmeta's lawyer Claire Waquet told the court on Tuesday last week.
The Lille Bar Council's lawyer, Jean-Philippe Duhamel, dismissed the idea that banning religious and political markers results in discrimination against Muslim women.
"If you want to play football but you prefer to pass the ball with your hands, are you discriminated against because we say you can't play?" he told Reuters.
He said that wearing religious symbols detracts from the lawyer's independence and equality within the profession.
Not a problem
Asmeta said she found it more difficult than her peers to find work placements despite experience, good grades and language skills, which led her at times to seek internships with lawyers from a Muslim background.
A recent study found that email enquiries to law schools from a person with a North African name are a third less likely to receive a response, compared to 12.3 per cent less likely for higher education establishments in general.
The argument put forward to ban the hijab in the courtroom in the name of equality and universalism is in line with France's historic philosophical tradition, said Clara Gandin, a lawyer for Asmeta.
" To be equal, we need to erase all the signs that show we are different," she said.
In Britain, which has a more multicultural approach to immigration compared to France's more assimilationist policy, barristers can advocate for clients while wearing the hijab, alongside the robe, and are not required to wear the traditional wig.
After positive experiences interning at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and working as a legal assistant in Brussels, Asmeta is considering moving abroad again as a last resort.
"I was very happy there, I could work, people saw me as a person with competences and not like a problem," she said.