Burkini beach ban: must French Muslim women become invisible?

‘Some suggested passing off a headscarf as a way to avoid frizzy hair; others posted Harry Potter donning an invisibility cloak’

It would be hard to find swimwear skimpy enough to cause offence on the French Riviera. It turns out that people are more easily shocked by the idea of covering up.

With emotions still running high after the attacks on Bastille Day crowds in Nice and on a Normandy church, the mayor of Cannes instituted a ban on swimming at the city's beaches in dress that could be held incompatible with morality, secularism, hygiene or safety – as well as anyone wading in fully clothed. No one was in any doubt of what he had in mind: the full-length, hooded two-piece for Muslim women, known as the burkini. Other local mayors followed suit, sparking fierce debate and legal challenges that have yet to be resolved by France's supreme court.

The controversy may seem frivolous but it encapsulates the difficulties French society is grappling with as it confronts the threat of jihadism. In a country that bans the veil from schools and the full-face version from public spaces, there is a widespread discomfort with visible expressions of faith. But this should not lead people to conflate strong religious conviction with violent extremism.

It can be hard for those outside France to see the subversive side of a swimsuit. There is no consensus on the issue within France, or among French Muslims. But dislike of the burkini crosses party lines. Jean-François Copé, a rightwing politician seeking to run for the presidency, whipped up opposition to a private burkini event (later cancelled) with the cry: "No to Salafist holidays!" Manuel Valls, socialist prime minister, has denounced the burkini as the instrument of an "archaic" concept of Islam, and of "a political project founded on the enslavement of women".


Whatever one thinks of the burkini, it is hard to see any way in which legislating against it could be helpful.

Feminist arguments are unlikely to cut much ice with young Muslim women who have no doubt of their own autonomy and choose to cover up. And for anyone who is indeed subject to family or cultural pressure, the alternative could be staying at home.

Some mayors are merely engaging in gesture politics. But others are acting on genuine concerns about disorder. There has been a brawl on a beach in Corsica between Muslim families and other locals, followed by a more serious disturbance.

Flaunting one’s Muslim identity is a provocation in the current climate, the argument runs (this is a view shared by some Muslims, wary of inviting racist aggression). But this is the logic that blames victims of sexual assault for wearing provocative clothing. If there is a danger of such a reaction, politicians should not be legitimising it.

Rather than invoking the secular constitution and lashing out at symbols of Muslim identity, France needs an honest discussion of what secularism means and whether it is preventing some Muslims finding their place within French society. Laicité is not a static concept. Attitudes have hardened in recent years, with a majority advocating not just separation of church and state, but the avoidance of religious display in all public spaces.

First-generation immigrants often acquiesced in such “discretion” as the price of acceptance in French society. But for younger Muslims, especially those angry at discrimination, religion is increasingly a badge of identity.

So when Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a senior socialist politician likely to head the new Foundation for French Islam – intended to aid integration – said this week that Muslims would do well to show discretion, social media offered a swift and sarcastic response. Some suggested passing off a headscarf as a way to avoid frizzy hair; others posted Harry Potter donning an invisibility cloak.

Some may still be able to laugh it off, but the message many young Muslims draw from the polemic over burkinis is that the French state would prefer them to be invisible.

– The Financial Times service