Open Essay

The War on Burkini

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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The fear of foreigners within in the age of radical Islamism

FOR THE PAST FEW years, I have been fortunate enough to spend my summers in France, one of thousands of British people who escape south for the warm weather and the pleasures of a country that sets a very high store by the quality of life. Here, in the south of France, everything stops for a leisurely lunch. Indeed, from breakfast to late in the evening, the day is punctuated by mealtimes that are all but sacrosanct. Freshly prepared food and fine wines are savoured and enjoyed whenever possible in the company of good friends and with stimulating conversation.

It is all part of what makes France what it is, and the French are inordinately proud of their country and its traditions. For most people here, whatever their age, background or political views, there is a right way (the French way) and a wrong way of doing things and outsiders are expected to both accept and embrace it.

In many respects it is all extremely appealing. We wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t. But there are times, I have to confess, when I just want to shake them and say, “Try something different for a change!” Away from the big cities it can be so mono-cultural, it’s stultifying. French wine is delicious, but sometimes you might prefer something from Italy, Spain or further afield. Don’t bother looking in the local supermarket. You’ll be unlikely to find any. And while French cuisine can be superb, why is it that almost every restaurant serves up a variation on the same basic themes? The only foreign dish that is readily available is pizza, and most French people probably think it was invented here anyway. If you crave a Thai meal or an Indian curry, as I often do, you have to make it yourself. And if you serve it to French guests, expect them to move it around the plate, express surprise at how spicy it is, and fill themselves up with bread.

One benefit of all that eating and drinking is the opportunity to exchange views on a wide range of subjects with family and friends. Unlike in Britain, where it is often considered bad form to be too opinionated, in France people are expected to have views on all the big issues of the day. They would be embarrassed not to have something to contribute to the discussion. The country is rightly proud of its intellectual traditions. And while the education system is still somewhat regimented, the love of vigorous debate is deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

This summer, that debate has been particularly intense. While the temperatures rose, so too did people’s tempers. The country has been divided over a subject that would ordinarily be relatively uncontroversial—what is and what is not acceptable for a woman to wear on the beach. In less troubled times, this would seem to be a bizarre, even ridiculous issue for disagreement, especially here in the south of France. The beaches of the Côte d’Azur have been associated with a laissez-faire hedonism for half a century. The actress Brigitte Bardot was famously photographed sunbathing topless on the French Riviera in the 1960s. It was seen as an early, defiant assertion of both female liberation and sexual freedom. Even now, in more conservative times, the southern coast is dotted with beaches where total nudity is the norm. Women and men let it all hang out without raising an eyebrow, and the presence of whole naturist families enjoying the sunshine in the all-together belies any suggestion that nudity is merely an excuse for licentiousness.

Yet, cheek by jowl with these nude beaches, local authorities have been trying to impose ordinances forbidding Muslim women, or anybody else for that matter, wearing so-called burkinis— swimsuits that cover most of the head and body. The message was that while on certain beaches you can never be too undressed, on others it was forbidden to be over-dressed.

The bylaws banned ‘beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation’. This was designed to make the policy appear consistent with the French state’s long-held commitment to secularism

The situation received international attention, and no small measure of outraged condemnation, when photographs went viral depicting four armed male police officers ordering a woman on a beach in Nice to remove her burkini. The circumstances surrounding the incident were disputed. Why was the woman laying there with no towel, no bag, no parasol to protect her from the sun? It looked as if the confrontation might have been deliberately staged. Either way, it had the effect of turning a localised issue into the subject of a major national and global controversy. Now everybody had to have an opinion.

The location of the incident was significant. The woman was on a beach alongside the long stretch of highway known as the Promenade des Anglais. This is the exact spot where in July Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year old French-Tunisian, drove a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day, killing 85, many of them children.

That brutal attack was followed less than two weeks later by the murder of an elderly Catholic priest, Father Jacques Hamel, by two radicalised young French Muslims. France has fallen victim to some of the worst terrorist outrages in recent years, but these attacks had a particularly profound impact on the ordinary French citizen. The attacks in 2015 on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on the Bataclan nightclub and other venues in Paris had shocked the nation, but in 2016 it felt as if no community was safe.

Security lapses were exposed and serious questions were asked about the ability of the French authorities to gather intelligence and act on it. But the nature of the targets—a street celebration and a local church—created a sense that nowhere was safe. There was pressure on political leaders at all levels to come up with a response commensurate to the severity of the threat to the everyday lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

The challenges are real, but by no means confined to France. They require complex, multi-layered responses, many of which are of necessity out of public sight and may take many months if not years to have an effect. There are no easy, political solutions to the alienation from societal norms that can provide the breeding ground for radicalisation and a readiness to attack indiscriminately and without warning. The fight against terrorism is painstaking, delicate and complex. Politicians, by contrast, feel the need to find answers that are quick, dramatic and uncompromising.

Many protestors of the burkini ban saw it as an example of blatant Islamophobia. Others pointed out that the burkini wasn’t even a creation of the Arab world, but had been invented in Australia

And so here in France, politicians have done what politicians do. Unable to come up with adequate responses to the threats that do exist, they search around for threats, real or imagined, that are easier to tackle and then make a lot of noise about how to deal with those. What follows is a wave of populist hysteria directed at the wrong targets with consequences that are profoundly damaging to the societies they claim to want to protect.

On the Côte d’Azur local mayors linked the decision to impose a ban on burkinis directly with the Nice atrocity, although they struggled to explain how ordering women to expose more of their bodies would discourage men from inflicting carnage on the innocent. The bylaws did not specifically mention the burkini, but instead banned ‘beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation’. This was designed to make the policy appear consistent with the French state’s long-held commitment to secularism. Images quickly appeared on social media of a man in a full body scuba diving outfit, a Roman Catholic nun in her traditional habit, and a woman in a burkini. The caption read, ‘Only one of these is illegal on French beaches.’ The charge was one of inconsistency and bias against Islam. When that was put to the deputy mayor of Nice by the BBC, he replied that nuns, too, were affected by the ordinance, although to date there have been no reports of nuns being told to disrobe.

Eventually more than 30 districts imposed similar bans, most of them along the south coast. The international outcry at what was seen as an unjustified attack on personal freedom led to protests and public demonstrations not just in France but as far away as London. Many protestors saw it as an example of blatant Islamophobia. Others pointed out that the burkini wasn’t even a creation of the Arab world, but had been invented in Australia to help Muslim women there become better integrated in society. The inventor, a Lebanese woman by the name of Aheda Zanetti, was quoted as saying, “We’ve sold to Jews, Hindus, Christians, Mormons, women with various body issues. We’ve had men asking for them too.” The British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson had been pictured in one, which she said she wore to protect her skin.

The futility of the policy was most evident, however, in the fact that burkinis are so rarely seen that most French beachgoers have never come across a woman wearing one, much less been offended by her. Even in Nice the authorities conceded that only two cases had ever been reported to them. Yet the local municipalities refused to back down until France’s highest administrative court issued a temporary ruling overturning the ban while it weighed the evidence more closely.

A mere court ruling is not enough to stop a populist politician who thinks he has a popular issue with which to gain a lot of nation attention. Least of all when that man is a former president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, who is hoping to regain the job he lost in next year’s elections. Sarkozy says he wants the ban extended across the whole of France. Unless he truly thinks it will have an impact on any actual or potential jihadists, the only possible conclusion is that he believes he can never be too much of a hardliner in the current febrile state of public opinion.

Even the socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who may yet make his own tilt at the presidency, has supported the mayors who imposed the bans. The current president, the ineffectual François Hollande, has sat on the fence, saying only that the French way of life “supposes that everyone sticks to the rules and there is nether provocation nor stigmatisation”. It took two female ministers in the governing party to argue that the bans risked unleashing racist rhetoric and discrimination. All the mainstream parties are terrified at the prospect that the far-right, avowedly anti-Muslim Front National will make big gains in the 2017 elections and that its leader, Marine Le Pen, may even stand an outside chance of becoming president herself.

Many of my French friends are dismayed at the row, which they see as the product of pure political opportunism. And yet, as one reminded me when I shared that image of the diver, the nun and the burkini clad woman on Facebook, ‘those in France who are strongly opposing such orders are tired of yet another example of French bashing’. He is right. It is not characteristic of the French to stigmatise minorities, any more than Donald Trump’s rampant Islamophobia is typical of every American. All across the world, populist right-wingers are seeing their chance to exploit the fears aroused by the rise of apparently religiously-motivated terrorism for their own narrow advantage. Distrust of outsiders and a dislike of immigrants was a strong motivating force behind the decision of a majority in the UK to vote for ‘Brexit’ from the European Union. History is littered with examples of unscrupulous politicians using hatred of foreigners, and most often ‘foreigners within’, to stir up emotions and create the environment for a backlash that benefits their own nationalist agendas. It has happened, and continues to happen, in all parts of the world. There is nothing unique, in this respect at least, about France.

Responsible politicians, and all those with influence in the public sphere, have a duty to speak out before seemingly irrelevant and ineffectual gestures lead to more serious consequences. The burkini ban is one such example.

It fell to the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on a fraternal visit to his counterpart in Paris, to sum up the argument more succinctly than I have heard any French politician manage. “I don’t think anyone should tell women what they can and can’t wear,” he said. “Full stop. It’s as simple as that.” For a moment, as I raised a glass of rosé wine with my French friends, I felt proud to be British.