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Fresh burkini debate reveals France's toxic post-election climate

  • Alexander Seale
  • 20 May 2022

‘Clothes maketh the man,’ says the English adage, but it is women’s garb that continues to obsess French politicians — and not for any sartorial reasons.

In 2016, France's top administrative court overturned a town "burkini" ban amid shock and anger worldwide after some Muslim women were ordered to remove body-concealing garments on French Riviera beaches. ( Thomas Padilla / File / AP )

The mayor of Grenoble wants swimmers to dress how they wish to in the swimming pools of his city, whether that means going topless or in full-body swimsuit.

But many of his compatriots disagree with him, crying that the ‘burkini’ — a portmanteau with snide connotations of ‘burqa’ — should be banned

A few weeks after President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election, the atmosphere in the country has returned to its everyday toxicity and trivialities. The latest has been a debate in Grenoble, after the town council voted to allow the loosening of previous controversial rules on swimwear in open-air swimming pools. 

Bathers can now dress how they like in pools, wearing full-body swimsuits — or going topless. The French interior minister, a conservative, said the move was an “unacceptable provocation” that was against the values of the secular Republic. He announced he would try to block it. 

For Eric Piolle, from the Europe Écologie Les Verts (Green Party), elected mayor of Grenoble in 2014, authorising the burkini in swimming pools is no religious matter, but one centred on freedom of choice and equality. “Women should be allowed to swim topless or in a burkini,” he said.

However, expensively-coiffed and dressed bon chic, bon genre Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who won 41 percent of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections in April, told RTL radio station: “If I had been elected, I would have banned the burkini in swimming pools.”

The burkini is authorised in swimming pools in the city of Rennes, the Grenoble mayor reminds his citizens. This authorisation was passed four years ago by a socialist mayor, with help of MPs from Emmanuel Macron’s Party, La Republique En Marche. “It has posed no problem to date,” Piolle added on France 2.

A left-wing, pro-Muslim group, Citizen Alliance, has supported Piolle by holding protests in Grenoble and other places in France, where the burkini is banned.

Many secular French feminists and even more politicians back the burkini ban, arguing that Muslim women should not be the subject of "male religious diktats". They refuse to consider that this might be a choice by the women themselves, and that a ban would unfairly forbid them from using public pools.

It is curious that a woman exposing her breasts should be seen as a triumph for feminism by such persons, but another choosing to cover her legs is not.

Many far-right politicians and those on the right like Laurent Wauquiez from Les Républicains Party are angered by Piolle’s decision. With the latest development, Wauquiez will cut off millions of euros of regional council subsidies to Grenoble.

This trite controversy is the latest in France over garments worn by Muslim women, which many claim is a metaphor for subjugation.

But others argue as fiercely that freedom to dress in hijab or burkini would allow a far larger proportion of Muslim women in France to be an active part of broader society. 

France is home to more than 6 million Muslims, mostly descendants of its former colonial subjects in North Africa.

A woman's choice wins no respect in France, unless it fits France's rigid and now bypassed interpretation of secularism.

In 2004, France banned the hijab from classrooms in both state schools and government offices, though it remains a pedestrian sight in the country.

Nicolas Sarkozy, whose presidency was marked by the rise of the anti-Muslim racism (though not averse to taking money from certain leaders in the Muslim world), was minister of the interior at the time of its banning. He was elected president three years later.

Sarkozy’s right-wing government also banned full-face coverings anywhere in France, and stood accused by human rights groups of choosing Muslim women to stigmatise.

This is not the first time the burkini has sparked a public outcry in France.

A controversy over this swimwear in 2016 caused France's highest administrative court, the Conseil d'Etat, to set a precedent in law, when it overturned a ban on the burkini swimsuit, which had been brought by the town of Villeneuve-Loubet in southeast France.

The court deemed that the ban introduced by 30 coastal towns was “a serious and illegal attack on fundamental freedoms.”

During the presidential campaign, between the two election rounds, Macron was challenged by a woman wearing hijab in Strasbourg, who asked him whether he considered himself a feminist.

“Do you wear the veil because you want to or because you have been made to?” Macron asked, to which she replied that it was very much her own choice.

In the debate between Le Pen and Macron, the far-right woman candidate said she would ban headscarves in public entirely, and fine any woman who flouted her ban.

Muslims in France remain wary in this post-election period, which is only a few weeks short of the June Parliamentary elections.

With people of Muslim faith (whether practicing or not) forming a young and dynamic minority in Europe, whether first, second, third or even fourth generation, these questions of dress reveal a far deeper malaise across the continent: whether racism and bigotry will prosper, or whether integration will triumph, becoming as silky and suave as an Hermès scarf — that no French person would ever think of banning.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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