Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been one of the most outspoken government figures on the matter of Islamic attire in France, denouncing garments such as the burqa and the beach-friendly burkini as expressions of a "political project" antithetical to French values. Even after a top court suspended local bans on the burkini, Valls doubled down in defense of the bans, despite the disagreement of other center-left ministers in the government.
At a meeting with members of his Socialist Party on Monday night, Valls made an appeal that invoked a national symbol of the French republic — Marianne, an allegory of freedom and reason in the form of the Goddess of Liberty that was adopted in the mid-19th century. A bust of her sits in every French town hall.
Valls seemed to cite a famous 1830 depiction of the Goddess of Liberty by the painter Eugene Delacroix, which shows a bare-breasted deity holding aloft the French tricolor while leading the people against a Bourbon monarch.
“Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people!" Valls thundered. "She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”
But many French historians, as the Guardian newspaper noted, were quick to poke holes in the prime minister's rhetoric. In a tweetstorm, historian Mathilde Larerre ridiculed Valls for not recognizing Marianne as allegory and for confusing the classical, ancient origins of the female figure with a more convenient interpretation of her nudity.
Another Twitter user mocked Valls by pointing out that the lady in the Delacroix painting isn't going to a beach — the battleground between those, including Valls, who believe burkinis should be banned and others who think Muslim women have the right to wear what they want.
Valls and other French politicians in favor of such restrictions see the burkini, the burqa and Muslim headscarves as symbols of repression, female enslavement and, as the prime minister puts it, "backwards Islamism." Some right-wing mayors have even drawn a direct line between the wearing of such clothes and terrorism.
But a spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the local bans, saying they "fuel religious intolerance and the stigmatization of Muslims" and "have only succeeded in increasing tensions."
Ahead of next year's presidential election, in which the ruling Socialists face a stiff challenge from the far-right, it's unlikely that Valls will back down.
But spare a thought for Marianne.
Most of the artistic representations of her show her fully robed, not topless as in the Delacroix painting. Moreover, she is always adorned with some form of headdress. Most typically, it's the ancient Phrygian bonnet, a cap that became a symbol of liberty and whose origins trace to modern-day Turkey.
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