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Both sides of burkini debate cite French commitment to secularism

Clare Byrne, AFP file photo | Violators of the burkini ban risk a €38 fine.

France’s highest court last week overturned a municipal ban on the full-body burkini swimsuit, a prohibition that ignited fierce debates with both sides claiming to uphold the French value of “secularism”.


Citing the nation’s commitment to "la laïcité" (secularism), the resort town of Cannes was the first to introduce a ban on full-body “burkini” swimwear earlier this month, with several other coastal cities quickly following suit. Violators risked incurring a €38 fine.

Cannes Mayor David Lisnard issued an ordinance on July 28 forbidding beachwear that does not respect "good morals and secularism". The ordinance further noted that swimwear "ostentatiously exhibiting religious affiliation, while France and its religious sites are currently the targets of terrorist attacks, could pose a risk to public order".

France is currently struggling to balance its cherished value of secularism – which dates back to a 1905 law on the separation of church and state – with an increasingly multicultural society that includes the largest Muslim population in Western Europe at 7.5 percent. A series of attacks perpetrated by both immigrants and French nationals who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group has only fuelled debates over integration and the place religion occupies in French society.

Liberté, égalité, laïcité

The way France pursues this commitment to secularism has perplexed many observing the debate from afar. Instead of welcoming all religions to practise openly, the French approach tries to ensure that religion remains a private matter that is separate from the notion of national identity, which is based on shared civic values. Obvious displays of religious affiliation are considered alienating and are unwelcome in the public sphere.

France introduced a law against all “ostentatious” religious symbols – including Islamic headscarves, the Jewish kippah and “large” Christian crosses – in classrooms in 2004. It became the first European country to ban face coverings in all public places in 2010. And while the law technically prohibits any item of clothing that fully covers the face, many felt the law was targeted at Muslim women who wear the veil.

France is so dedicated to ensuring that its residents consider themselves to be French above all that the country abstains from collecting data about the ethnic, racial or religious makeup of the population; it is illegal to ask about ethnic or religious affiliation on government forms.

Both supporters and opponents of the burkini ban claim they are adhering to the fundamental French values of freedom and secularism. Several French officials have maintained that the burkini – as well as headscarves and veils – represent the repression of women, a reluctance to adopt French values and an attempt by Muslims to separate themselves from the rest of the population. Others argue that the burkini was an attempt to allow conservative Muslim women to participate more fully in the French lifestyle, including frolicking on the nation’s beaches.

In an initial court ruling upholding the ban, a court in Nice wrote: "Wearing such singular clothing, other than that commonly worn for swimming, can only be interpreted as a symbol of religiosity in this context," further stating that such religious displays conflict with France’s commitment to secularism.

Many members of France’s Socialist government have been vocal supporters of the ban. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that the burkini was incompatible with the values of the French Republic and that the burkini represents "a deadly and retrogade Islamism".

"Beaches, like all public areas, must be protected from religious claims,” he said earlier this month. “The burkini is not a new range of swimwear ... It is an expression of a political project, a counter-culture, notably based on the enslavement of women."

President François Hollande has mostly steered clear of the debate, calling on all sides to obey the law “without provoking or stigmatising” others.

Few members of the ruling Socialist party have publicly come out against the ban, with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and Health Minister Marisol Touraine among the few who made their opposition known. Vallaud-Belkacem, a former women's rights minister who is of Moroccan origin, said last week that while she personally dislikes the burkini, banning them on security grounds made little sense.

"In my opinion, there is no proof of a link between the terrorism of Daesh (the Islamic State group) and what a woman wears on a beach," she said.

In an interview published Monday with Catholic newspaper "La Croix", Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the ban both "unconstitutional [and] ineffective”, adding that it risked evoking “antagonisms and irreparable tensions".

"The implementation of secularism, and the option of adopting such decrees, must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people," Cazeneuve said in comments last week.

Cazeneuve also warned that some wanted to use the burkini debate as a way of attracting voters with an eye on the 2017 presidential election. Former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently announced his intention to seek the office again, has vowed to make the ban nationwide if he wins. Far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, another presidential hopeful, has repeatedly spoken out against what she calls the "Islamisation" of France.

Religious ‘discretion’

France’s Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) recorded 905 anti-Muslim acts in 2015, compared with 704 a year earlier. CCIF president Abdallah Zekri said the number was the highest the collective had seen since it was established in 2011.

In the three weeks following the January 2015 attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market, 120 anti-Muslim acts were recorded, of which nearly 30 were aimed at places of worship.

“The CCIF had never seen so many attacks in such a short period of time,” it said in its annual report.

Like many European nations, France is grappling with the inherent tension between its liberal values and a tolerance for those who may not share them.

But despite reported rises in Islamophobia since the terrorist attacks, the French are far less likely than many other Europeans to hold unfavourable views of Muslims. A Pew Research Center poll released in July found that 29 percent of French respondents held such unfavourable views compared with 69 percent in Italy, 50 percent in Spain and 35 percent in the Netherlands.

The French are also less likely to feel that Muslims seek to differentiate themselves from the larger French population, the Pew poll found. Slightly more than half – 52 percent – of French respondents felt this way, compared to 61 percent in both Germany and Italy and 68 percent in Spain.

France this week launched an initiative to establish a new Foundation for Islam in France, aiming to improve relations between the government and the Muslim community. But its new director, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, has already caused controversy by saying that Muslims should try to assimilate into French culture by being more “discreet” about their religious affiliations.

Meeting with leaders of France's Muslim community on Monday to discuss the new foundation, Interior Minister Cazeneuve said: "We need an Islam that stands with both feet in the Republic."

But French values must "transcend all others", he added.

"France is at war with terrorists, at war with an enemy trying to divide it and pit the French against each other – to fracture the nation's body, sap the Republic," he told reporters. "We must not fall into this mortal trap.”

A look at the burkini ban controversy in France

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