Sixty years after Brigitte Bardot revealed every Frenchwoman’s natural right to wear almost nothing at the beach, the nation is bitterly arguing over laws banning women from wearing too much. And no, it’s not only the burkini.
In Cannes, police stopped a 34-year-old Frenchwoman from sitting on a beach with her children wearing a headscarf and long trousers. A crowd shouted, “Go home”.
In Nice, photos surfaced of another woman in a headscarf removing a long-sleeved top while surrounded by armed police on a beach.
A growing number of towns, particularly in the South of France, have banned the full-body swimsuits known as burkinis from their beaches.
The mayoral decrees do not use the word burkini. They ban “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation”, citing the need to protect public order, hygiene or French laws which reinforce the constitutional requirement for secularism – that one religion should not be treated differently from another.
The issue has reached the country’s highest court, the state council, which is due to rule on a test case. The Human Rights League and an anti-Islamophobia group want the court to overturn a ban by the southern town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, on the swimsuits.
The Socialist government is split. Asked if the decrees amounted to racism, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the swimwear represented “the enslavement of women”.
Valls supports mayors who have issued local decrees against burkinis but will not introduce a nationwide law.
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkaceme is highly critical of the bans.
Born into a Muslim family in rural Morocco before moving to France aged four, Vallaud-Belkacem said: “I think it’s a problem because it raises the question of our individual freedoms. How far will we go to check that an outfit is conforming to ‘good manners’?”
She warned that the bans had “let loose” verbal racism. “My dream of society is a society where women are free and proud of their bodies.”
She warned that with tensions high after a series of terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic State, “we shouldn’t add oil to the fire” by banning burkinis.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy called the swimsuit a provocation that supported radical Islam. “We don’t imprison women behind fabric.”
The woman who created the burkini, Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, said Sarkozy misunderstood what it represented.
“Burkini is just a word that describes a full-cover swimsuit, and it doesn’t symbolise anything to do with Muslims. It’s about encouraging our kids to learn how to swim.”
The row intensified after the Nice photographs emerged.
Taken by a local news photographer, they showed a woman dressed in leggings, a long-sleeved tunic and headscarf being approached by four officers. As the police stand around her, she removes her long-sleeved top, revealing a short-sleeved top. It is unclear whether the woman was ordered to do so. In another image, a police officer appears to write out a fine.
The Nice mayor’s office denied the woman had been forced to remove clothing, saying she was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her tunic.
Since the ban came into force, 24 women have been stopped by Nice police.
The woman in Cannes, a former flight attendant from Toulouse, said she was wearing clothes and a headscarf when she was approached by police who wrote on her ticket that her clothes did not conform with “good manners” or French secularism.
“I wasn’t in a burkini, I wasn’t in a burqa, I wasn’t naked, so I considered my clothing was appropriate,” she said.
In a neat twist, French Elle’s summer edition headline reads: Is topless sunbathing over?
Ever since Bardot took off her top on the Riviera, French culture has regarded the relationship between topless sunbathing and women’s liberation as a sign of true equality.
No more. According to Elle, there are three reasons for the cover-up: increased concern over skin cancer; the “pornified” perception of topless women; and breast-affiliated activists such as Femen and Free the Nipple.
“Topless sunbathing was seen by women as a new freedom in St Tropez in the 1960s,” says Elle. The new trend is a “worrying sign of a regression in the place of women”.