France’s burkini debate: About a bathing suit and a country’s peculiar secularism.
PARIS — France’s highest administrative court on Friday overturned a ban on burkinis in a coastal area of the south of France, capping a month of intense national scandal and international outrage. In the last month, more than two dozen French cities and towns have outlawed the full-bodied swimsuit — designed for Muslim women to enjoy the beach while still observing traditional codes of modesty. Local governments had imposed the bans in the name of secularism because, for some, the burkini seemed an unwelcome display of religion threatening the basic French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. But for many French Muslims and members of France’s intelligentsia, the bans sparked an instant outrage over an unnecessary crackdown on a nonexistent problem. The same was true for millions of international observers, especially after images surfaced this week of a French police squadron surrounding a Muslim woman sunbathing on a beach in Nice, demanding that she remove portions of her clothing in broad daylight. The French court ultimately agreed — calling burkini bans an insult to “fundamental freedoms” such as “the freedom of conscience and personal liberty.” And yet a significant majority of the French do not view the bans as a problem. [France’s top administrative court overturns burkini ban] According to a poll released this week by the survey firm IFOP, 64 percent approve of the state policing what Muslim women wear to the beach. Likewise, most of France’s major politicians — conservative and liberal — seem to agree that the burkini has no place in their county. For those on the right, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the burkini is a “provocation,” a symbol of radical Islam in a country still reeling from the terrorist attacks in Paris last fall and in Nice in July. For those on the left, such as Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the burkini is a means of “enslavement,” the subjugation of women to a patriarchal religion. But these different objections to the burkini are rooted in the same soil: France’s unique — some would say bizarre — ideology of secularism. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789, France has aspired to an ideal of secular democracy completely free from the influence of any church or creed. By 1905, toward the conclusion of the Dreyfus affair, when a Jewish army captain was falsely accused of spying, church and state were officially separated by law. But in France, that type of secularism, which is common in countries around the world, soon became a creed in its own right. The initial prohibition against the state — or any of its representatives — showing religious preference eventually became a prohibition against private citizens showing any religious preference in public.