NEWS that Police Scotland is preparing to introduce a hijab to its uniform in a bid to encourage more Muslim women to join the force has raised eyebrows in France. Policewomen wearing headscarves in Paris? Forget it.

Police Scotland's plan to authorise the hijab as part of the uniform for Muslim women would be impossible in France. First, because all religious signs are banned in the public sector in the name of secularism. And also, because the debate on the presence of a strong Muslim community has taken an ugly turn lately. The decision by Dolce & Gabbana to launch a line of Islamic fashion may have gone relatively unnoticed in Scotland. In France, it led to weeks of heated arguments.

The fashion house released its collection of pricey headscarves and abayas early this year. That came shortly after the Japanese retailer Uniqlo launched a range of 'modest fashion' for Muslim women, Marks & Spencer introduced a burqini (a body-covering swimsuit), and H&M featured the veiled model Mariah Idrissi in an advertising campaign.

Things kicked off in France when the French secretary of women's rights, Laurence Rossignol, deemed the brands "irresponsible". She got carried away when she compared women who voluntarily hid their hair to black people "who supported slavery in America" and promptly apologised afterwards. But her interview unleashed a stream of comments from feminists and right-wing supporters alike who claimed that headscarves were a symbol of submission and shouldn't be accepted in France. Prime minister Manuel Valls hinted that they should be banned from universities, but admitted that it was impossible to implement.

The uproar reached its peak when the well-known feminist and philosopher Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of the same brands in an interview with the daily paper Le Monde. The famous writer has been an opponent of Islamism for a long time and her voice is highly respected in France. From then on, the story dominated traditional media and social networks. Every intellectual in the country had something to say on the subject. Valérie Toranian, former editor of Elle magazine, questioned the term "modest fashion" in a column: "In the name of this so-called modesty, turned into puritanism, all non-veiled women, Muslim or not, are deemed immodest." On the opposite side, Esther Benbassa, a Green MP, argued that "mini skirts were as alienating as hijabs".

Around the same time, Air France, the national airline, reopened its routes towards the Islamic republic of Iran and a trade union denounced the obligation for air hostesses to cover their heads in transit. They eventually reached an agreement with the management and the destination was only open to volunteering female staff.

Most of the debate revolved around the issue of choice. Lots of women who wear headscarves claim that it's their own decision, taken after a long personal process, sometimes against their family's opinion.

In an article in Le Monde, some young women, whose voices are rarely heard, explained their position: "We are fully French and Muslim. It's wrong to think it's not compatible." Several said they didn't want to be "an object of desire" for another man than their husband. Students of Sciences Po, a college for the French elite in Paris, went so far as to organize a "hijab day" in their support. Compared to the fight of Western women to demand their emancipation, or the current oppression of women in many Muslim countries, this conception of freedom can be hard to understand here in France.

Tania, an artist from Strasbourg, expressed fury on Facebook: "I've seen so many friends rebel against their family's pressure to wear a hijab or wearing it to escape harassment in their neighbourhood that the concept of choice is beyond me." Anne is a social worker from Lille, near the Belgian border, seen as a notorious centre for Salafism (an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam). She lives in an area where shops such as "Pudeur et Elegance" ("Modesty and Elegance") are a common sight. In her job and in her everyday life, she's seen a change in the last few years: "Some girls drop school, mothers in school meetings refuse to talk to men, Salafist organisations take care of after-school activities. It's a reality but French authorities are so afraid of being accused of racism that they refuse to tackle the issue."

As France continues to recover from recent terrorist atrocities, the suspicion of racism against the Muslim population continues to trouble the country's conscience. Eric Cantona, the beloved former footballer, dropped a bombshell when he claimed that Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid striker who is not taking part of the European Championship, was the victim of a "racist management" in the French football federation. Everybody knows Benzema paid the consequence of his bad behaviour off the field but his words struck a chord with his fans of Northern-African background. France hasn't come to terms with its past as a colonial empire. Yet at the same time, the majority of its six-million strong Muslim community is very well integrated and work hard, many in prominent professions.

So what was all the fuss about with Uniqlo and Dolce & Gabbana's modest ranges? The brands mainly targeted their Middle-Eastern clientele but the subject of religion - mainly Islam - is so divisive in France that everybody seemed to lose their temper like a pressure cooker ready to explode. So, you can imagine how fraught things would get if police women started to wear hijabs.

Anne, the social worker, puts things in perspective: "What shocks me the most is the cynicism of Western companies who think that Islamic fashion is a market." According to the management consultancy Bain, sales of luxury goods in the Middle East hit $8.7 billion in 2015, up from $6.8 billion the year before. And despite the call for a boycott, it's still business as usual for Uniqlo and H&M on the Paris high street.