France’s veiled prescription of what Islam should be is a poor guise of secularism for the country’s citizens and migrants
Burkinis are “not compatible with French values,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls on August 17. He was defending the French mayors who have recently banned the body swimsuits, usually worn by Muslim women, from beaches. Cannes and Nice are among 30 seaside towns in France to have issued bans. On August 26, the high court in France suspended the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, stating that the move “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms.”
FRANCE’S FOUNDING PRINCIPLES
To many outside the country, particularly the more liberal, it seems that the government is intervening where it has no business to, dictating what Muslim women should and should not wear. But within France, the ban has broad support. Those on the right and the left both see banning the burkini as an act that defends women’s rights, as well as religious freedom.
“I don’t think anyone should tell women what they can and can’t wear,” Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, said during a visit to Paris. Many left-wingers across the world would agree with him. But for the French left, the burkini, like the burqa and the niqab (full-face veil), is a symbol of male oppression. Women are made to cover their bodies so men can control them. If Muslim women have chosen to wear a burkini or burqa themselves, this is because their culture prescribes the limits of that choice. It was not really a choice at all. As such, so the argument goes, Muslim women need to be protected from oppressive garments like the burkini in the name of equality.
The only hitch is that this infringes on another of France’s founding principles: liberty. Nonetheless, this is a sacrifice that France’s socialists, and several others of their compatriots, are willing to make.
The chief justification for banning the burkini is France’s famed laïcité. Since 1905, the country has vigorously separated matters of church and state. This is implemented across all public spheres. School children do not receive religious education; religious dress is banned in public institutions; and politicians, though not obliged to, generally avoid discussing their own religious beliefs with zealous determination. In short, secularism is at the center of France’s national identity.
Yet laïcité —originally introduced to combat Catholic authoritarianism—has become a weapon wielded by the French government over its Muslim population.
Banning burkinis from beaches is just the latest example of the French state stepping in to curb Muslims’ actions and forms of expression—in a way that seems to go beyond secularist measures applied to other religious groups, particularly Catholics. Niqabs and hijabs (headscarves) are banned from state schools, as are conspicuous Christian and Jewish symbols. Since 2010, however, burqas and niqabs have been banned from public places altogether.
Burkini-wearing causes offense to France’s mayors and ministers, as well as many of its people, not just because it is seen as an act of defiance against French secularism, but because, for them, it also symbolizes a wider refusal to integrate and become “French.” Adhering to laïcité is part of this identity.
But, for some, being French means more than just limiting one’s religion to their private life. It also carries with it veiled prescriptions on what that religion should be. The French are attached to their secularism, but this does not mean that many of them are not also attached to the country’s Catholic, or at least Christian, cultural heritage.
There are large and numerous exceptions, but to a great extent France is not yet comfortable with Islam, nor with many of the multiple forms of Islamic culture that are, today, thriving in the country. Laïcité is a convenient tool for forcing French Muslims to, outwardly at least, assimilate and adopt cultural practices that the government and much of society feel more at ease with.
DEEPENING DIVISIONS, NOT HEALING
This is not to suggest that France is a country of xenophobes. Far from it. The mistrust and misunderstanding between communities in France has much to do with poor integration policies. Most migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, even after several generations, find themselves living surrounded by other migrants in the banlieues (suburbs) of big cities like Paris and Marseilles. With higher rates of poverty and worse schools than in other parts of these cities, migrant communities lack the opportunities that might foster social mobility and integration.
The French government’s overeager assertion of laïcité for Muslims also derives from fears of terrorism. Over the last few years, France has been targeted more than any other western European country. Since terrorists charged into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, French citizens have been shot, stabbed and killed.
The burkini, Prime Minister Valls has suggested, is not simply a fully body swimsuit, much like a wetsuit, but a symbol of political Islam. Women sporting burkinis on France’s beaches are akin to recruitment adverts for militant Islamists. For the government to allow them to do this would amount to an admission of defeat at the hands of its terrorist enemies.
The French government has good reason to fear Islamic radicalization, but singling outs Muslims under the guise of secularism is more likely to encourage it than prevent it.
Some argue that counterterrorism is not the point. With the burkini ban, France’s local and national politicians are simply preparing for the 2017 presidential election, pandering to an electorate universally terrified by recent terrorist attacks.
This is certainly true. Right-wing voters who feel that “French culture” is under threat will feel particularly comforted by the sight of police patrolling beaches, forcing Muslim women to remove their burkinis. As will others, including those on the left, who believe a religious symbol that is so often tied to female oppression can never be a choice.
The government’s endorsement of the ban, or more importantly the consequences of this, cannot just be dismissed as a political stunt, albeit a successful one. For most French Muslims, being French and Muslim are not incompatible, but by suggesting there is a choice to be made—and doing so with such aggression—France is playing a risky game.