The ban of ‘burkini’ swimsuits on some beaches of Southern France has caused a worldwide uproar. What was intended as a reaction against a perceived advance of Islamic fundamentalism has spectacularly backfired. Seen just a few weeks ago as the tragic victim of djihadi barbarism, France is now increasingly perceived around the world as an oppressive islamophobic villain. This new polemic illustrates France’s growing unease with the mounting visibility and assertiveness of Islam, but it also symbolises the trap that the country has created for itself.
On August 26, France’s Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) suspended the ban on full-body ‘burkini’ swimsuits in Villeneuve-Loubet, a small coastal town on the French Riviera. The country’s highest administrative court ruled that the ban was a serious and illegal violation of civil liberties. It thus overturned a previous judgment by a local administrative court that the ban of outfits manifestly denoting a religious affiliation was justified to protect public order. The Council of State, on the contrary, ruled that there was no reason to consider that any threat to public order had resulted from the choice of outfits by some people on the town’s beaches. As a result of the Council of State’s ruling, similar burkini bans imposed during the summer by about thirty towns in France, mostly on the French Riviera, are also considered as invalid.
The burkini ban has been dominating France’s national conversation over the last few weeks, in particular after a fight erupted on a Corsican beach on August 13 and after several women were forced to take off their burkinis or headscarves by municipal policemen on the beaches of Cannes and Nice. The controversy got quickly picked up by the media and politicians, and the whole country ended up engulfed in one of those psychodramas that regularly erupt concerning the place of Islam in French society. On one side, supporters of the ban vehemently advocate the need to reject an outfit that they consider as violating France’s sacrosanct “laïcité” – a strict vision of secularism, inherited from past struggles against the political influence of the Catholic church, which largely confines signs of religious affiliation out of the public space. On the other side, opponents of the ban criticise a measure they consider as “islamophobic” and infringing on women’s rights and civil liberties. Among the former, most of the right-wing opposition, under increasing pressure from the far-right National Front, but also part of the “republicanist” or “laïcist” left and even the country’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Among the latter, most of the socialist and far left, several members of the Valls government, as well as some “modernist” or “liberal” members of the centre-right.
“Je suis en burkini”
Like several other issues directly or indirectly related to the place of Islam in recent years, the burkini ban has caused many divisions and inflamed tensions within France’s society and among its political class. This time, however, the controversy has extended beyond the borders of France and gone global. International media covered the matter extensively, hovering between surprise and dismay, between mockery and indignation, and often bewildered by the nature or degree of the tensions that are tearing French society apart. The case also went viral on social media, those globalised echo chambers of modern herd behaviours, where insignificant indignations and commitments spread as quickly as they fall into digital oblivion. Protests even got held in front of the French embassies in Berlin and London, where young women in bathing suits joined others wearing burkinis or headscarves to denounce violations of women’s freedoms and the alleged spread of islamophobia in France.
Adopted in the wake of the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice and the slaying of a priest in Normandy a few days later, the anti-burkini bans were officially meant to stop the spreading of Muslim “communitarianism” on French beaches. So far, however, they have mostly heightened the tensions that have for a long time been undermining the foundations of civil harmony in the country. In addition, they have triggered a quite remarkable dual reversal in large parts of the global public opinion: a reversal of the image of France, gone within a few weeks from being seen as the victim of Islamist barbarism to being perceived as the islamophobic tormentor of harmless bathers, and a reversal of the dominant image of Islamic clothing in the West, which has ceased to symbolise women’s oppression to become a symbol of their freedom – almost a feminist conquest… The rallying cry of the world’s moderns and progressives, it seems, is no longer “Je suis Charlie”, “Je suis Paris” or “Je suis Nice”, but “Je suis en burkini”.
Outside France, many seem to struggle to understand this controversy and invite the French to show more tolerance for their Muslim community. Why couldn’t the French try to be more like the Canadians or the Scots, who just authorised the hijab in the ranks of their police forces? Why couldn’t they take inspiration from the European Commission, which stated this week that European Union officials have the right to wear burkas in the institution if they wish to do so? Or even from the United States, who have recently been celebrating their first veiled Olympian? Why does France seem to be so reluctant to embrace openness and multiculturalism? Can’t the French understand that trying to impose Western-type emancipation on Muslim women is counter-productive, and that their real emancipation will only come from within Islam? And why do they always go after women’s clothing, when men wearing qamis and other djellabas are also increasingly visible in their cities?
The Islamic full-body swimsuit was actually designed, according to its Australian creator, as an instrument of emancipation and integration, aimed at enabling Muslim women to enjoy the pleasures of beachgoing while respecting the “precepts” of their religion. Last year, left wing French daily Libération was reporting the success of the burkini in Algeria and the Maghreb, presenting it as forming part of a process of “liberation” of women. The newspaper was quoting sociologist Fatma Oussedik as saying that wearing the burkini enabled women to discover the joys of the beach and to venture into new spaces that were so far largely reserved to men, before concluding that the “great style” of the burkini was “restoring the majesty of the Algerian woman in the seaside area”…
The Algerian sociologist, however, was also quoted by Libération as saying that “wearing the burkini on a beach of the French Riviera, where a different social morality prevails, has another meaning.” Less than a year later, and as the controversial outfit has in fact appeared on the beaches of the French Riviera, France therefore wonders what this “other meaning” may be. Could the burkini just be, in France and in 2016, a swimsuit like any other, rather particular of course but nevertheless harmless, protecting moreover against sunburn and skin aging, and that women should have the freedom to wear when and where they want? Could it be, as it allegedly is in some Arabic countries, an instrument of emancipation, allowing women who would otherwise remain locked at home to finally go to the beach? Is it rather a symbol of oppression that despicable bearded machos now impose on their submissive wives? Or maybe an instrument of affirmation, which French Muslims use to assert their presence and freedom in the public space? Could it be a bit of all of this at the same time?
“This is our home!”
Anyway, this new psychodrama marks a new stage in the build up of France’s mounting unease over the growing visibility of Islam. While the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools and the 2010 law banning the full veil in public spaces – which is actually not fully enforced – had been adopted without too much resistance, it seems that the attempts at banning the burkini might face a stronger opposition.
Some see these attempts as an additional step, a step too far, that parts of the French society and political class want to take in order to reduce the visibility of the Muslim presence in the country. French politicians including the prime minister himself recently advised Muslims to exercise “discretion” in the manifestation of their religious beliefs, sparking international outrage and attracting sarcasm on social media. This type of advice is received increasingly negatively by France’s Muslim community, within which many perceive signs of growing anger and frustration over the repetition of Islam-related controversies and the rise of “anti-Muslim” rhetoric. “Laïcité”, some suspect, is being used as a pretext to enact Islamophobic, “neo-colonial” policies. Moreover, the “Muslim question” is increasingly being used as an easy – and electorally profitable – way to dodge discussions about the “real problems” that have been plaguing the country for years, such as its economic decline, persistent mass unemployment, growing inequality, etc.
Others on the contrary view the irruption of the burkini on French beaches as a new step, a step too far, that political Islam is trying to take in order to assert its presence in the country and to undermine France’s “laïcité”. Behind the apparent innocuity of a full-body swimsuit, they say, the burkini represents a deliberate attempt to impose the religious factor in the public space. It is a way for assertive radical Muslims to claim “this is our place, this is our home!”, a sort of response to the rallying cry of French nativist groups (“on est chez nous!” “We are at home!”). If the burkini is accepted on French beaches, they fear, how could the prohibition of any kind of religious clothing be maintained over time? If the choice of wearing an Islamic swimsuit on the beach is only a matter of individual freedom and does not pose any risk to public order, how could it be otherwise for any other Islamic-inspired attire in other public places? If a woman can be free to cover herself from head to feet on the beach, on what ground could she still be prevented from doing likewise anywhere else? Accepting the burkini would undoubtedly lead to further demands, further assaults against “laïcité”.
Unsurprisingly, the ruling of the Council of State overturning the burkini ban has rejoiced the supposedly “representative” bodies of the so-called “Islam of France”, which described it as a “return to reason” and a victory of the rule of law against islamophobic stigma. Behind them, however, some more radical factions rejoiced even more, such as the Committee against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a controversial association that maintains ambiguous links with openly communautarian groups and even radical islamist preachers, and that seems to be intent on bringing down French “laïcité”. Even beyond those groups, the decision of the Council of State was also probably welcomed by all those who wish to “punish” France for its allegedly anti-Muslim policies. For them, this ruling is a victory, and they will now seek to further push their advantage.
The burkini controversy is therefore far from over. On the contrary, it could and will probably escalate in the coming weeks and months. First because the mayors of several cities that adopted anti-burkini bans have voiced their refusal to withdraw them, exposing themselves to possible administrative sanctions and also raising the risk, paradoxically, of possible disturbances to public order in their municipalities. Second because burkini sales have exploded since the beginning of the controversy, making it likely that the number of problematic situations will multiply on beaches as well as in public pools. Third, because the country’s right wing opposition now seems determined to introduce a legislative proposal to outlaw burkinis nationwide in September. The initiative may sow discord on the left, and further weaken the already embattled government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Describing the burkini as the symbol of an “archaic vision of the place of women in the public space”, Mr. Valls supported the controversial municipal bans. Following the decision of the Council of State, he vowed not to dodge the debate and claimed that “denouncing the burkini is to denounce a deadly, retrograde Islamism”.
As France is now entering the patently demagogic contest that its presidential election has become, there is no doubt that issues related to identity and Islam will come to take centre stage in the debate. In an attempt to contain the rise of the National Front, some on the right will double down on a quasi nativist orientation – particularly former president Nicolas Sarkozy. The left is likely to fracture on these issues between those who would rather ignore the debate, supporters of the hard line defended by Mr. Valls, promoters of libertarian multiculturalism, and those radicals who liken the current treatment of Muslims in France and Europe to that of Jews in the 1930s…
All this upcoming agitation will further expose the schizophrenia that is gripping French society over the “Muslim question”. Most French people will indeed probably continue to claim that “laïcité” is what makes possible the peaceful coexistence of religions the country, when in fact French secularism has historically been built against the religious factor – and with great success if we judge by the gradual extinction of the Catholic religion in France. The French will also engage in endless and vivid discussions about the place that should be granted to Islam in the country, when many Muslims already consider that France forms part of the Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam, or is meant to join it, and therefore ought to be a land where one can publicly practice and spread the religion of the Prophet. They will continue to argue over ways to organise an “Islam of France” with which the republic could establish a “pact” or a “concordat”, when Islam does not recognise hierarchical structures and representative bodies that could mediate with a secular political power, as this contradicts the fundamental principle of a direct submission of the faithful to Allah, anywhere, anytime. They will continue to assert that Islam should be treated on an equal footing with other religions, when Islam defines itself as being by essence the only “true” religion, universal and perfect, revealed by God to men and destined to be embraced by all. They will seek to “demonstrate that Islam is compatible with democracy”, as Mr Valls recently declared, when its religious and civilisational foundations openly contradict some fundamental democratic principles. They will continue to argue over ways to best ensure that people in France can “live together” (“vivre ensemble”), even if that means imposing it by law, when the national space and collective unconscious are now largely being structured by the drifting apart of communities, which increasingly live in separate geographic, cultural, and mental spaces. They will also continue to claim their attachment to the republican principle of jus soli and to their cherished “social protection” system, while refusing to accept or acknowledge their manifest consequence – that France is progressively becoming a land of Islam, with all what that entails.
For as long as it will be possible, a majority of French people will continue to cling to concepts and beliefs that gradually lose their ability to describe and understand reality. Only when the gap will become impossible to ignore or to deny will they start to admit that they were wrong. Some already do, such as philosopher and historian Marcel Gauchet, who recently declared that he had been wrong to believe that the contact with Western societies would naturally impose “a modernisation, and more precisely a secularisation of the Islamic consciousness”, which would even then extend to Muslim countries. The “secularisation of Islamic consciousness”, Mr Gauchet now reckons, did not happen – and probably will not happen. “Islam has not entered in democracy”, he said, and “we are caught off balance by an internal evolution of the Muslim world, represented on our soil by millions of newcomers, that goes the opposite way of the endogenous movement of Christian societies of Western Europe.” As a result, we are now “faced with de facto communalist enclaves, where the influence of Salafism grows, or even just a control over social life by a customary Islam that in itself is perfectly harmless and peaceful, but that is nevertheless heavy and resistant to modernisation”. As “the law of numbers gives an ever more consistent dimension to this dynamic”, Mr Gauchet sees no other choice for France than to “rethink laïcité to adjust to Islam.” In other words, to admit that the French republic will have to adapt to Islam rather than the other way around, and to accept compromises that in fact will only result from a rapidly shifting balance of power.
France may still try to hold on to its cherished model of secularism for now, but its fate might already be sealed. Burkinised. And for this the French will have no one and nothing else to blame but themselves.