France’s complex commitment to secularism fuels burkini debate



France’s highest court last week overturned a municipal ban on the full-body burkini swimsuit, a prohibition that ignited fierce debates with both sides claiming to uphold the French value of “secularism”.

Citing the nation’s commitment to “secularism” (laïcité), the resort town of Cannes was the first to introduce a ban on full-body “burkini” swimwear earlier this month, with several other coastal cities quickly following suit. Violators risked incurring a €38 fine.

Cannes Mayor David Lisnard issued an ordinance on July 28 forbidding beachwear that does not respect “good morals and secularism”. The ordinance further noted that swimwear “ostentatiously exhibiting religious affiliation, while France and its religious sites are currently the targets of terrorist attacks, could pose a risk to public order”.

France is currently struggling to balance its cherished value of secularism – which dates back to a 1905 law on the separation of church and state – with an increasingly multicultural society that includes the largest Muslim population in Western Europe at 7.5 percent. A series of attacks perpetrated by both immigrants and French nationals who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group has only fuelled debates over integration and the place religion occupies in French society.

Liberté, égalité … laïcité?

The way France pursues this commitment to secularism has perplexed many observing the debate from afar. Instead of welcoming all religions to practise openly, the French approach tries to ensure that religion remains a private matter that is separate from the notion of national identity, an identity based on shared civic values. Obvious displays of religious affiliation are considered alienating and are unwelcome in the public sphere.

One way that France seeks to ensure that its residents consider themselves French above all is to abstain from official collections of data about the ethnic, racial or religious makeup of its population; it is illegal to ask about ethnic or religious affiliation on government forms.

France introduced a law against all “ostentatious” religious symbols – including Islamic headscarves, the Jewish kippah and “large” Christian crosses – in classrooms in 2004. It became the first European country to ban face coverings in all public places in 2010. And while the law technically prohibits any item of clothing that fully covers the face, many felt the law was targeted at Muslim women who wear the veil.

Both supporters and opponents of the burkini ban claim they are adhering to the fundamental French values of freedom and secularism. Several French officials have maintained that the burkini – as well as headscarves and veils – represent a reluctance to adopt French values and an attempt by Muslims to separate themselves from the rest of the population. Others argue that the burkini was an attempt to allow conservative Muslim women to participate more fully in the French lifestyle, including frolicking on the nation’s beaches.

In an initial court ruling upholding the ban, a court in Nice wrote that: “Wearing such singular clothing, other than that commonly worn for swimming, can only be interpreted as a symbol of religiosity in this context,” further stating that such religious displays conflict with France’s commitment to secularism.

Many members of France’s Socialist government have been vocal supporters of the ban. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that the burkini was incompatible with the values of the French Republic and that to denounce the burkini “is to denounce a deadly and retrogade Islamism”.

“Beaches, like all public areas, must be protected from religious claims,” he said earlier this month. “The burkini is not a new range of swimwear … It is an expression of a political project, a counter-culture, notably based on the enslavement of women.”

President François Hollande has mostly steered clear of the debate, calling on all sides to obey the law “without provoking or stigmatising” others.

Few members of the ruling Socialist party have publicly come out against the ban, with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and Health Minister Marisol Touraine among the few who made their opposition known. Vallaud-Belkacem, a former women’s rights minister who is of Moroccan origin, said last week that while she personally dislikes the burkini, banning them on security grounds made little sense.

“In my opinion, there is no proof of a link between the terrorism of Daesh (the Islamic State group) and what a woman wears on a beach,” she said.

In an interview published Monday with Catholic newspaper “La Croix”, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the ban both “unconstitutional [and] ineffective”, adding that it risked evoking “antagonisms and irreparable tensions”.

“The implementation of secularism, and the option of adopting such decrees, must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people,” Cazeneuve said in comments last week.

Cazeneuve also warned that some wanted to use the burkini debate as a way of attracting voters with an eye on the 2017 presidential election. Former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently announced his intention to seek the office again, has vowed to make the ban nationwide if he wins. Far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, another presidential hopeful, has repeatedly spoken out against what she calls the “Islamisation” of France.