The beach and the ‘burkini’

Sarkozy plays the political card of rigorous, enforced secularism

 

When Nicolas Sarkozy formally threw his hat in France’s presidential race ring last Tuesday he made clear that identity politics – code for keeping Muslims in their place – would be a central plank of his campaign.

Islam, he maintains, must learn to integrate with French tradition and its values of tolerance , “rules that the other religions respect perfectly”. Among causes he is championing are bans on the Islamic veil in universities, in dealings with the public services and in workplaces, the tightening of family reunification rules, and the prohibition of pork-alternative menus for Muslim and Jewish children’s lunches in state schools.

Although clearly playing to prejudice fanned by the far right against Muslims, Sarkozy’s ostensible purpose, supported by all too many on the left, is the defence of France’s much-vaunted, totemic tradition of laicité, rigorous, enforced secularism.

That moral crusade is being fought out by some of France’s mayors on their local beaches where they are trying to institute legal prohibitions on the wearing by Muslim women of modest “burkini” swimsuits.

Like the campaign against the veil, the ban on the burkini is dressed up as a feminist defence of “oppressed”, manipulated women, whether they want to be defended or not – socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, has denounced the burkini as the instrument of an “archaic” concept of Islam, and of “a political project founded on the enslavement of women”.

But just as it is profoundly mistaken stereotyping to suggest that women who wear short skirts are asking to be raped, so too is it to conflate the desire to be modest on a beach, as they see it, with a provocative expression of sympathy with extremism, let alone with being a card-carrying terrorist.

The message being sent to young Muslims from the run-down, no-hope banlieues is not that they are being embraced into French culture and society by such bans, but that France would prefer them not to exist, to be invisible. To go “home”. The overzealous playing of the laicité card is a signal to them, like it or not, that socialists are at one with the Front National on that issue.

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