The decision by a handful of French mayors to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit has divided the country and shocked its neighbors, with critics seeing the prohibitions as profoundly discriminatory.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls waded into the debate, saying the garment was “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic” and that he supported towns that banned it.
The remarks by the Socialist premier propelled the latest row over the place of Islam in France from the beaches onto the political front benches.
Valls cited the tensions in France after a string of jihadist attacks, including July’s truck massacre in Nice—for backing mayors who barred a garment “founded on the subjugation of women.”
The burkini, which covers the body and hair, is a “provocation” that risks causing “public disorder,” he told La Provence daily, echoing the mayor of Cannes, where three women have been fined 38 euros for sporting the swimsuit.
Valls however ruled out implementing any nationwide ban.
His intervention came as the mayor of the northern resort of Le Touquet announced he would follow the lead of his counterparts in the south. Le Touquet’s right-wing mayor Daniel Fasquelle told AFP he had yet to catch sight of a burkini in his town but did not want to be caught “off guard.”
Beyond France’s shores the bans, which one mayor sought to pass off on hygiene grounds, have been widely ridiculed. “France cites latest threat to security: The Burkini,” the International New York Times teased in a front-page headline last week. “The French emphasis on keeping religious attire out of public life can at times seem strange to foreigners,” the paper wrote, noting that head-covering bathing suits had been worn by several Arab athletes at the Rio Olympics without causing disturbances.
For Britain’s Daily Telegraph, the burkini bans enacted in the name of combatting extremism were themselves “foolish acts of fanaticism.” While expressing understanding for France’s security jitters, the paper found there to be “no earthly reason why banning them [burkinis] would help to thwart France’s violent Islamists. If anything, it is more likely to alienate and upset moderate Muslims.”
Islamic dress has long been a subject of debate in France, which was the first European country to ban the Islamic face veil in public in 2010, six years after outlawing the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. Proponents of these bans argued that religious symbols should be relegated to the private sphere.
Critics note however that the measures mainly target the Muslim minority and impinge on freedom of religion.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Wednesday he believed the French model, which stresses the need for immigrant communities to assimilate, had failed. “Alas, I don’t think the French model has worked very well,” he told Corriere della Sera, saying the burkini bans were “a potential provocation” and could make France even more vulnerable to attack.
The rash of bans comes as anti-Muslim sentiments mount in the mainly conservative south in the wake of the Nice attack. Last weekend, youths on a beach on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica came to blows with a group of Muslim families, reportedly after a tourist snapped pictures of women bathing in burkinis.
Five were arrested on Wednesday over the mass brawl, in which five people were injured.
For sociologist Michel Wieviorka, the brouhaha is proof of a “radicalization on all sides—by nationalists, secularists and Islamists.”
“Politicians should try to calm tensions and stop creating hysteria,” he told AFP, asking politicians and burkini wearers to both step back from the fight.
France’s Human Rights League took aim at Valls for backing the anti-burkini mayors, accusing him of “participating in the stigmatization of a category of French people who have become suspect, by virtue of their faith.”
Jean Bauberot, a sociologist specializing in secularism, saw the bans as proof of an illiberal drift in the home of liberty, equality and fraternity. “You can be shocked by the headscarf or the burkini, and we can and should debate it, but without banning it. That’s democracy: tolerating difference, accepting otherness,” he told the Liberation newspaper.