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French burkini debate grows, raising questions about 'liberté' of choice

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France's debate over whether to ban the burkini may look like a debate over religious influence, but it's arguably pitting French ideals against themselves, writes the Monitor's Peter Ford.

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    Nissrine Samali wears traditional Islamic dress as she heads for a swim in Marseille, France. The resort of Cannes has banned full-body, head-covering swimsuits worn by some Muslim women from its beaches, citing security concerns.
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France has gone into another of its periodic conniptions about Muslim habits. The threat they pose – or don’t – to national identity and national security has found a surprising new expression: a swimming costume.

The burkini, a two-piece swimsuit that covers the extra-modest Muslim woman from head to toe, has sparked an angry debate that even the prime minister has joined. It would seem, in the name of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” an ugly current of intolerance has emerged.

The row began when the right-wing mayor of Cannes, the seaside resort of film festival fame, banned the burkini from the city’s beaches and threatened to fine women found wearing one. A number of other mayors followed suit.

The burkini, said Thierry Migoule, head of services for the Cannes city government, is “an ostentatious piece of clothing that makes reference to allegiance to terrorist movements that are waging war on us.”

The Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, did not go quite so far. But he interrupted his vacation to offer his support for the mayors, branding the new swimsuit “the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women.”

So what has happened to a woman’s right to liberté of choice? It has become hostage to secularism, or laicité as the French call it, though they cannot agree on what it means.

Laicité is a founding value of the French republic, intended to guarantee the state’s neutrality in religious affairs. It is meant to ensure there is no such thing as a state religion, nor any favoritism, allowing everyone to practice their faith freely so long as public order is maintained. It was born of a lengthy battle between the state and the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the 19th century.

But as jihadist terrorists have struck repeatedly in France, and as social tensions have mounted, political leaders on both left and right have used the principle to constrain Muslims.

Veils are banned in schools and in all public institutions such as hospitals; the niqab, covering everything but a woman’s eyes, is illegal everywhere; a number of schools that used to offer Muslim (and Jewish) kids alternative choices when pork was on the canteen lunch menu have stopped doing so.

Now the burkini has raised hackles. “The effect on society [of the burkini ban] is disastrous,” worries Michel Tubiana, president of the Human Rights League, a century-old watchdog. “It radicalizes both sides, it raises tensions and it encourages isolationism in the Muslim community.”

It also plays into the hands of extremists, argues Yasser Louati, a civil liberties activist especially concerned by Islamophobia. “ISIS terror attacks are designed to have governments crack down on fundamental liberties,” he says. “They are looking to make it impossible for Muslims and non-Muslims to live peacefully together in the West.”

So far, at least in France, they do not seem to be succeeding. A poll published in the daily Le Monde last weekend found that 63 percent of respondents felt that “we should not lump together” Muslims living peacefully in France and Islamist radicals.

And a survey last May by the National Consultative Human Rights Commission actually found that the general public’s level of tolerance had gone up by five points since the year before, which it said was “astonishing, to say the least” against the background of Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere.

But how robust this tendency is, the commission cautioned, is still unclear. The number of Islamophobe attacks – mainly against veiled women – rose more than threefold last year, it pointed out.

Meanwhile, hate speech has become “commonplace” in France, according to a report in March by the Council of Europe’s human rights watchdog, which warned that “the rejection of Muslims is fed by certain political leaders’ discourse.”

This is not just a matter of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, comparing open-air Muslim street prayer sessions to the Nazi occupation. The Socialist Minister for Families, Women and Children, Laurence Rossignol, recently likened women who wear the veil to “Negroes who supported slavery,” which did not endear her to the Muslim community.

The burkini makes many French people, not least feminists, uncomfortable. But the challenge of the debate it has provoked, says Jean Baubérot, a sociologist of secularism, is to choose between two options: “on one side, to give the largest possible number of people the feeling that they belong to the community and to isolate the enemies of the republic; on the other … to come down hard on the slightest occasion that seems shocking.

“One may be shocked by the veil or by the bikini,” Dr. Baubérot told the daily Libération. “There can and should be a debate, but that does not mean banning things. That is the principle of democracy: tolerating difference, accepting otherness.”

In today’s France, Baubérot is hoeing a hard row.

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