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the full-screen Burkinide debate in France gained momentum in 2016. The garment became controversial in the country. Opponents argue that it violates secular French principles, while supporters argue that a ban is discrimination. Photo: Claude Paris / Ap
Summer has really come for France the signs are at least two: the first incessant heat wave has passed and the debate on how to allow women to dress when bathing is once again in full swing.
You may remember from 2016, the discussion of whether full coverage swimsuits, the so-called “burkinis”, should be allowed on the beaches of the Riviera. It was carried out in a France hit by three major Islamic terrorist attacks in a year and a half. The tone had increased to say the least and the new anti-terrorism laws were striking in all possible and impossible directions.
In 2019, a group of activists imposed themselves with Muslim women walking into a public swimming pool in Grenoble wearing burkini, something that reminded then Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve that it was against the law.
But earlier this spring, Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle said he was free to wear the burkini when visiting the municipality’s swimming pools. A burkini is therefore a bathing suit that covers the head and body, but leaves the face, feet and hands visible. The same layout of a diving suit, treacherously similar to the increasingly popular UV swimwear, but with the suspicious intent of relating to Muslim orders about how a woman should dress.
In May of this year, at the same time in the municipality of Grenoble it was decided that it would be legal to swim and sunbathe topless in the bathing areas of the municipality, all in an attempt to soften the rather strict rules that apply in French public swimming pools and which mostly have hygienic reasons. Baggy clothing, i.e. all swimwear except the slim model, is prohibited and swimming caps must be worn.
Tuesday, the highest guide in the country administrative court on the mayor of Grenoble, arguing that it is contrary to the secular interests of the state. In France it is forbidden to wear religious symbols in the public sector and the law on “laïcité” – the separation of nearly 120 years between church and state – requires that the practice of religion take place outside the public space. At the same time, since time immemorial, the country has been a veritable crossroads of different faiths. France is home to the largest Jewish diaspora in Europe and the largest percentage of Muslims in Western Europe, while a large percentage of ethnic French professes Catholicism.
These various facts cause the country to occasionally suffer conflicts of interest between what are usually called the non-denominational values of the republic and the freedom of individual religion. Sure, this kind of thing happens everywhere. But somewhere you can still feel that a limit to this diligent secularism has been crossed when a new kind of moral police force women to undress. That garments that are great to wear on the way to the pool should actually be allowed once you arrive too. That the alleged fight against religious oppression is not helped by a group of women who are now staying at home because they don’t want to show up in bathing suits.
In 2016, the UN called France to remove the ban on the burkini and said the country is engaged in serious interference with the fundamental freedoms of its citizens. UN spokesman Rupert Colville says the ban “ignites religious intolerance and stigmatization of Muslims”.
The current French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, has a different opinion. He states in a tweet that Eric Piolle “deliberately provokes our common values”. Darmanin made it clear that his instructions to Grenoble’s local authorities are that Burkinin should leave.
And perhaps it’s a coincidence – opposition to the burkini is shared by both some French feminists and Marine Le Pen – but it’s still a bit unstable that the decisions and debate about how women in France should dress when they take a bath are driven almost exclusively by men.