Tremors along France’s most fragile social fault-line running between its identity as a secular state and the rights of its sizeable Muslim population are increasing.
Pictures on the internet are circulating widely which show a woman seated on the beach in Nice taking off the top of a burkini swimsuit apparently at the request of three police officers standing over her. Some reports said she was then fined.
On Thursday France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, began hearing a request by the French campaign group League of Human Rights for a burkini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet to be overturned.
The campaign group’s appeal has already been dismissed in a lower court. In its ruling, that court said that the burkini ban was “necessary and measured” in the context of the Nice Bastille Day attack which killed 86 people and the murder of a Catholic priest by Islamist militants in Normandy.
And President Francois Hollande’s government has backed the conservative mayors who’ve introduced the ban on beaches between Nice and Marseille where there also happens to be a strong Muslim population. He’s stated that the burkini violates French laws on secularism.
Last week Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the Marseille-based La Provence newspaper that beaches and other public spaces needed to be protected from religious expression, saying the burkini was a sign of the subjugation of women.
“There is an idea that women, by nature … are impure and should be covered up. That is not compatible with the values of France and the Republic. Confronted by such provocations, the Republic must defend itself,” he was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy called the burkini “a provocation” in a TV interview on Wednesday night, stating that “we don’t imprison women behind fabric”.
But the designer of the burkini, an Australian Muslim woman Aheda Zanetti said in an article on Wednesday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that she designed it “to give women freedom, not to take it away.”
Referring to the French she added: “I think they have misunderstood a garment that is so positive – it symbolises leisure and happiness and fun and fitness and health.”
In London a protest was to be held outside the French embassy on Thursday. Dubbed a Wear what you want party on its Facebook page, the organisers stated: “We are disgusted to hear of armed French policemen telling women what they are allowed to wear and making them undress in public. Women have the right to WEAR WHATEVER THEY WANT.”
The debate about women’s freedoms and Islam’s generally conservative attitude towards women’s dress continues to divide many countries around the world – and even surfaced at the Olympics. A photo of an Egyptian volleyball player wearing a long sleeved shirt and a hijab and her German opponent wearing a bikini was discussed widely over the internet.
But no other European country has followed France in banning the burkini on its beaches. Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has said that Italy wouldn’t ban them, arguing that it would be counter-productive. A commentator in the Daily Beast news website pointed out that modestly dressed nuns are readily accepted on beaches in Italy.
French Muslims React
On Wednesday the head of a body representing Muslims in France said French Muslims are concerned the burkini ban could lead to further stigmatization of Muslims.
Anouar Kbibech, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith said after meeting Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve that there was growing concern, especially among French Muslim women over the ban.
“This is creating emotion and anxiety among Muslims in France and beyond,” Kbibech said after the meeting.
Cazeneuve said the decision to ban the burkini must be proportionate and should not lead to stigmatization or the pitting of one French community against another.
One senior government official told Reuters news agency that the authorities must be cautious and not exacerbate existing tensions. “We have several million Muslims in France who are mostly moderates or non-practicing. If they feel that it is the only subject in public debate they won’t feel at home and will be tempted to withdraw to their communities,” the official said.
France banned the burqa and niqab from public view in 2010. In 2014 the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban but said the law could appear excessive and encourage stereotyping.