PARIS — On Thursday, France’s highest court began deliberations over the “burkini” — the full-body bathing suit designed to allow Muslim women to enjoy the beach while still respecting traditional codes of modesty. With a decision expected Friday afternoon, the court will consider whether local authorities in the south of France respected the existing laws on secularism when they fined or questioned Muslim women on beaches on the grounds that everyone be “properly dressed” and “respectful of good morals and the principle of secularism."
Normally, August in France is a time of tranquility, when many French take lengthy vacations as restaurants and businesses close for nearly a month of rest and relaxation. But this year — in the midst of staggering heat and in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Nice and Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray — August has been anything but tranquil. Thanks to a number of towns cracking down on the burkini, the country’s increasingly toxic relationship to identity politics has now permeated even the decidedly apolitical realms of leisure and nonchalance.
Now, it seems, even French beaches have an ideology. In the name of “laïcité”—an abstract secular ideal whose definition seems to be approaching “that which is not Muslim” with each passing day — the picturesque beaches of the Côte d’Azur have now become zones somehow hostile both to observant Muslims and the female body. Images that emerged on Wednesday shocked the world: on a beach in Nice, police officers actually forced a Muslim woman — later identified as a third-generation French citizen from Toulouse — to remove articles of her clothing in broad daylight.
For many around the world, that this spectacle occurred in France in 2016 was beyond belief: this, after all, is a country that calls itself a universalist republic of equal citizens and that — at least according to its own understanding of history — was the first in the world to emancipate women. But France is also apparently a country where a certain number of elected officials have chosen to declare war neither on a foreign power nor about a domestic issue but on a particular piece of clothing.
As international outrage builds against this anti-burkini crusade, a growing number in France, at least among the country’s intelligentsia, is now asking who wanted this war, and, more pressingly, what exact purpose it serves. A survey of Thursday’s headlines — from publications across the political spectrum — betrays an unusual consensus, a collective sense of what can only be described as bewilderment.
Perhaps predictably, the editor in chief of the left-leaning Libération newspaper framed recent events this way: “In a free country, the police came in large numbers and chased a woman from a beach who had committed no crime other than walking on the sand with a scarf and trousers.” He continued: “Will the security forces from this point forward now mobilize to close beaches to mothers who ask nothing and threaten no one?”
But surprisingly, the typically conservative Figaro newspaper had much the same interpretation: in the estimation of one commentator, embracing the burkini ban merely “shows a propensity to verbally lose our temper over the effects of a situation more than lucidly analyzing its causes.” The same goes for Les Échos, a leading financial newspaper, where one columnist put it quite simply: “reason,” she wrote, “has disappeared.”
As the debate continues to exacerbate here but especially overseas, even the French government has begun to back off its initial opposition to the burkini, which Prime Minister Manuel Valls notably called a means of female “enslavement.” As France’s Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said Wednesday: “The implementation of secularism, and the option of adopting such decrees, must not lead to stigmatization or the creation of hostility between French people.”
France, where the headscarf has long been a political issue, is no stranger to these debates: the place of religion — and, particularly, Islam — in public life remains one of the most divisive issues in the country. But the controversy over the burkini ban in a dozen coastal French cities is unlike the typical outcry over whether veils, for instance, should be allowed in schools or other public places.
This time, it lacks substantive support from the usual advocates of secular equality. Even mainstream French feminists, who have tolerated policing the wardrobes of Muslim women in the past, are mystified. As Caroline de Haas, a French politician and feminist, tweeted this week: “I am so embarrassed.” Her post included the same images of police confronting the woman in Nice that shocked the world.
In a sense, while the court deliberates, the court of public opinion has already ruled. Whatever Friday’s verdict, the war against the burkini may already be over — and the burkini may have won.