The conservative mayor of Le Touquet admits that, to his knowledge, nobody in the fashionable, seaside town in northern France has ever been seen wearing a “burkini”, a piece of full-length beachwear for Muslim women.
Still, that did not stop Daniel Fasquelle from becoming the sixth French mayor this week to attempt to ban the garment. While rare even among the country’s 5m Muslims, the burkini has become a hot political issue this summer and the latest battleground in a national debate about integration, secularism and identity.
Those opposed to the burkini call it an affront to France’s secular values and a threat to public order. Banning it, Mr Fasquelle argued, would send a message against the “enslavement of women” as well as “extremism and terrorism”.
With a presidential election approaching, and the nation still reeling from a string of terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, national politicians of all stripes in France have seized on the burkini debate in hopes of trumpeting their tough secular credentials.
The move by the mayor of Touquet is especially politically charged: The town will next week host an event for the youth of the centre-right Republicans party, where former president Nicolas Sarkozy could appear to announce his candidacy for his party’s presidential nomination in November.
Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls came out in support of the local burkini bans this week, saying that the swimsuit, which typically covers the body but not the face, reflects a world view based on “the enslavement of women”.
While saying he would not impose a national ban, he told La Provence newspaper that the burkini suggested that women were “impure” and that this “archaic vision” was “not compatible with the values of France”.
Laurence Rossignol, the minister for families and women’s rights, told Europe 1 radio that the “burkini was not just a new line of swimsuits” but part of a “social project” that intended to “conceal and hide the body of women”.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, an academic at the University of Toulouse and specialist on the veil in French politics, says that the strength of the rhetoric, from the left and the right, must be seen in the context of a rising far right and looming presidential election.
The latest polling shows the National Front making it to the second round of the Presidential election next April. “Mainstream parties are terrified about the rise of the far right in France, and are looking at this burkini issue to score points,” says Ms Alouane.
Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, expressed her strong support of the burkini ban on Wednesday, writing in a blog post: “The soul of France is in question here . . . France does not lock away a woman’s body, cover up half its population.”
But the burkini is also part of a running debate in France about displays of religion in public spaces, with policymakers long attempting to balance individual freedoms of expression with a defence of the country’s fiercely held secular values.
Since 2004, it has been forbidden in France to wear any conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, be it the Christian cross or the hijab. France then banned the wearing of face-covering veils in public in 2010.
Some Muslims, who make up France’s second largest religion, say attempts to ban the burkini go one step further, forbidding what is in effect a wet suit with a hood that is worn not in a state building but on a beach.
Ndella Paye, a French Muslim who regularly wears a burkini and describes herself as a “radical feminist” with the lobby group Mamans Toutes Egales, points to a string of measures that she believes are alienating France’s Muslims.
“Little by little Muslim women are being pushed back indoors, where it is harder for them to integrate with the French population,” she said, adding that the climate in the country following the terrorists attacks by radical Islamists over the past year was making it “difficult to breathe” for Muslims in France.
An administrative court backed a ban imposed this week in Cannes, saying: “In the context of the state of emergency and the recent Islamist attacks in Nice . . ., the display of conspicuous religious signs can create or exacerbate tensions.”
But the group the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has filed a complaint against the burkini bans with the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, which is expected to hand down a ruling in the coming weeks.
On Le Touquet seafront on Friday, the lines between fashion, politics and religion seemed as confused as ever. There was no sign of a burkini, but one woman, Jacqueline, was swathed in a thick scarf, covering her hair, as well as long sleeves and trousers.
“I am not religious, no,” she said, clutching her jack against a gust of wind. “I am just trying not to die of cold out here.”
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