Paris (AFP) - French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet on Wednesday waded into a row over the marketing of a sports version of the hijab Muslim headscarf in France, saying she regretted the "hysterical" debate and stressing that selling such items would in no way break the law.
Her comments followed a raging dispute, especially on social media, on Tuesday after French sports retailer Decathlon announced it would sell a runner's hijab in France to "make sport accessible to all women in the world".
But Decathlon backed down hours later following a public outcry, saying it would not sell the hijab in France.
"I think there has been far too much hysteria over the matter, and I regret that," Belloubet told BFM television.
Providing the face is not completely covered "there are no legal objections" to selling the running hijab, she added, deploring the fact that some political leaders had sought to exploit the issue.
Asked about her own personal opinion, Belloubet said: "I don't see why women should force themselves to wear such clothes".
The controversy is the latest in France over face- and body-covering garments worn by Muslim women which many perceive as instruments of women's subjugation in a country with strict laws on secularism.
Others argue that such garments let Muslim women be an active part of society.
In 2004 France banned the hijab, which covers the hair but leaves the face open, from classrooms and government offices, but it is a common sight in the streets.
The country with Europe's largest Muslim population was then deeply divided in 2016 over the appearance on beaches of the body-concealing "burkini" swimsuit.
Decathlon already sells the runner's hijab in its stores in Morocco, and had planned to introduce the garment to France in the coming weeks.
However the plan raised public ire, with socialist MP Valerie Rabault calling on Twitter for a boycott of Decathlon, a move backed by right-wing politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan.
Aurore Berge, a spokeswoman for President Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move, said "sport emancipates, it does not suppress".
"My choice as a woman and a citizen will be to no longer trust a label which breaches our values. Those who tolerate women in the public sphere only when they hide themselves are not freedom lovers," she added.
Meanwhile, US sportswear group Nike sells a sports hijab in France for women in black, grey, or white for 30 euros ($34).