Photos of French beach police fining headscarfed woman go viral

Valery Hache / AFP | Sunbathers on the beach at Nice

Images of a headscarfed woman on a French beach being surrounded and fined by police officers in the southern French city of Nice have gone viral amid an increasingly heated debate over the burkini ban imposed by some French towns.


The UK’s Daily Mail tabloid published the story under the lurid headline: “Get ‘em off! Armed police order Muslim woman to remove her burkini on packed Nice beach.”

The Guardian and the Telegraph broadsheets also reported that the woman was “forced” to undress by officers.

The woman in the photographs was not, in fact, wearing a burkini – swimwear that covers the entire body and which has been banned by a number of French towns – but merely leggings, a shirt and a headscarf.

The pictures show three officers approaching the woman as she naps on the beach. She is then seen removing her shirt as a policeman writes out a fine. Since a July 14 truck attack in the city that killed 86 people, 12 armed police officers are on permanent duty on the beach.

Contacted by FRANCE 24, Nice’s city hall insisted that the officers did not force the woman to remove her clothing, but did issue a fine for contravening the city’s ban on burkinis.

The viral images prompted suspicions in some quarters that the pictures were staged. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, in a statement issued Wednesday, implied that the publication of the pictures “appears to be some kind of manipulation to undermine the city’s police officers”.

Both the Guardian and the Daily Mail credited the picture to Vantage News, although the pictures are being sold by the Paris-based Best Image agency. Best Image told FRANCE 24 that the picture was taken “by a freelancer working on the story, who happened to be on the beach at the time”.

“This picture was certainly not staged, as some people have alleged,” a spokesman for the agency said. “The freelancer witnessed the scene, which took place at 11am on Tuesday and lasted roughly 10 minutes. The woman was issued with a fine and left the beach a few minutes later. That is all the photographer was able to see.”

#WTFFrance trending

The publication of the pictures caused a Twitter storm on Wednesday, and the hashtag #WTFFrance (What the F**k France) was trending on French Twitter throughout the day.

"Question of the day: How many armed policemen does it take to force a woman to strip in public?" Andrew Stroehlein, European media director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on the microblogging site.

French feminist and political commentator Caroline Fourest tweeted a link to the daily Mail article, stating: “This is NOT French secularism. And unacceptable.”

Nice is one of about 15 French towns that have banned the wearing of the burkini on beaches, with authorities saying it contravenes French secular values and “threatens public order”.

But the vague wording of the bans, which in Nice forbids beachwear that is “overtly and ostentatiously religious” or which “can cause public disturbances”, has created confusion. Correct attire for the beach “respects [French] secular traditions [and] the rules of hygiene and security”, the ban says.

Beachgoers have been left to puzzle over whether the ban refers solely to head-to-toe swimwear, which many non-Muslims wear for protection from the sun, or to being fully clothed and having one's head covered on the seashore.

Another woman told AFP on Tuesday that she had also been fined for wearing leggings and a tunic with a headscarf on a beach in Cannes.

"I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming," the 34-year-old, who gave only her first name of Siam, told AFP.

France's highest administrative court, the State Council, will on Thursday examine a request by the Human Rights League to scrap the ban, which is now enforced on some 15 beaches in the country.

Lower courts have supported the decision by some French mayors. A tribunal in Nice said the burkini could "be felt as a defiance or a provocation, exacerbating tensions felt by the community”.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), France’s highest Muslim authority, will meet Wednesday with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve amid concerns that “certain mayors are using the debate over so-call burkinis for their own political ends”.

"In some of the places where it has been banned, no one has ever even worn a burkini,” the CFCM said.

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