By Damien Stroka and Stuart Williams in Paris
STRASBOURG, France: The pan European rights body the Council of Europe has pulled a campaign promoting diversity among women and their freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf after it sparked an outcry in fiercely secular France.
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 extreme right contenders seeking to unseat President Emmanuel Macron in next year's vote, and who fiercely oppose hijab-wearing in public.
"This European campaign promoting the Islamist veil is scandalous and indecent at a time when millions of women courageously fight against this enslavement," added far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron's main rival in the 2017 polls.
**- 'Opposite of French values' -**
In a country where secularism is a cornerstone of national values and the election campaign has been fought mostly on right-wing territory, the outcry went beyond the extreme right.
Paris region chief 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.
"I was profoundly shocked," French Minister for Young People Sarah 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 Paris issued an official protest through diplomatic channels.
"We have taken down these tweet messages while we reflect on a better presentation of this project," a Council of Europe spokesman told 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.