French President Emmanuel Macron has found himself on the end of some heavy criticism after saying that whether the matter of Muslim headscarves should be worn in public is none of his business.

Speaking to reporters in Reunion during his visit to the island on Thursday, Macron said: “The wearing of the veil in the public space is not my business. That is what secularism is about. The wearing of the veil in public services, at school, when we educate our children – this is my business.”

Macron immediately took flak for what his critics called a neglect for public affairs.

“For the first time in the history of the Republic, a public affair is not the government’s business,” said Le Figaro columnist Gilles-William Goldnad. “Running away rather than being brave.”

“Islamic totalitarianism is taking root everywhere in our society with the veil being worn and Macron is washing his hands of it,” said Karim Ouchikh, a lawyer of Algerian heritage who converted to Roman Catholicism from Islam. “France needs a strong president and not a Pontius Pilate. I call for resistance to this tragic renunciation.”

“For him, anything that can help defraud France should benefit from a collaboration that is as active as it is discreet,” tweeted Jean Messiha, a National Rally member and former senior Defence Ministry official. “It is urgent that we defeat the Macronist power.”

One user wrote: “‘The veil in the public space is not my business,’ says Macron. Just like: the situation of hospitals, the reform of the baccalaureate, the Yellow Vests, the radicalisation, the suicide of police officers, the attacks, the growing crime rate. In short, France.”

Headscarves have been at the centre of multiple controversies in France, which is estimated to have around 6 million Muslims. French law bans full-face coverings in public, while the hijab – which leaves the face open – is banned only in schools and government offices. However, Muslim mothers are allowed to wear it on school trips.