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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 08   01-15 September 2016

National Identity, Laicite and Burkini Ban: France’s Dilemma

By Professor A. R. MOMIN

Burkini or burqini is a type of swimsuit for women that covers the whole body except the face, hands and feet. Designed by a Lebanese-born Australian designer Aheda Zanetti in 2004, the burkini is intended to be a modest bathing dress that complies with Muslim sensibilities. Zanetti says that some 40% of her customers are non-Muslim, including Jews, Christians, Mormons and Hindus. Burkinis designed by Zanetti are also used as a uniform by female beach lifeguards in Australia.

Burkini Ban in France

On 28 July 2016, the mayor of the seaside resort of Villeneuve-Loubet ordered a ban on burkinis on beaches on grounds of security, risk to public order and France’s secular ethos. Subsequently, at least 20 municipalities, mostly on the French Riviera, have imposed bans on burkinis. The ban order says that “access to beaches and for swimming is banned to any person wearing improper clothes that are not respectful of good morals and secularism, that beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order, and that the infringement is punishable with a fine of €38”.

The ban evoked a sharp reaction from human rights groups and has become a highly controversial issue. The socialist prime minister Manuel Valls defended the ban and said that the burkini was part of “the enslavement of women,” adding that the wearing of the burqini is "not compatible with the values of France and the Republic." Valls told the newspaper La Provence that “the bikini is not a new range of swimwear, a fashion. It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women.” The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, said that “the burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism.” The deputy mayor of Nice said, "When you see a burkini on the beach, people feel unsafe". On the other hand, some of the government ministers disagreed with the decision to ban the burkini, although they have a distaste for full-body swimsuits.

The burkini ban has been enforced in a highly arbitrary and discriminatory manner. The Collective Against Islamophobia reported that 16 women who were wearing headscarves, tops and leggings and not bukinis on the Riviera, were given fines in the first week of August. A 34-year-old mother told the AFP news agency that she was sitting on the beach in leggings, a tunic and a headscarf in Villeneuve-Loubet, when the police forced her to remove her headscarf and fined her. A former flight attendant from Tolouse, relaxing on the beach in Cannes, was abruptly asked by the police to remove her headscarf. She was wearing just a headscarf, not a burkini. When she refused, some of the onlookers told her to “go home”, even though her family has been in France for three generations.

France’s Human Rights League and the Collective Against Islamophobia filed a petition against the burkini ban at the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat), France’s highest administrative court. In an interim judgement delivered on 26 August, the court suspended the ban on full-body swimsuits in Villeneuve-Loubet, pending a definitive ruling. The court said the ban “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom.” Three senior judges of Conseil d’Etat said they found that no evidence produced in favour of the ban proved a risk to public order was being caused by “the outfits worn by some people to go swimming.” The court said there has to be verifiable threat to public order before mayors can intervene to regulate how people dress. The court added that the principle of laicite or secularism is not involved in this case because while the French state is secular, people are not. People can be as religious as they like, the court added. The judges said that the “emotions that are the result of the terrorist attacks, most notably the one carried out in Nice on 14 July, do not suffice to legally justify the ban that is being challenged.”

However, the court’s ruling is being resisted by the mayors of some 30 municipalities and some of them said that the burkini ban would continue to be in place. The mayor of Frejus, David Rachline, who belongs to the far-right National Front, insisted that the ban was “still valid.” Though the burkini ban has been overturned by France’s highest administrative court, police have continued to target women wearing the modest swimsuit and even those wearing headscarves on beaches. Most French politicians across the political spectrum – from the socialist prime minister Manuel Valls to the centre-right presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy to Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right National Front – evidently favour the burkini ban. Sarkozy has in fact publicly declared his resolve to bring in legislation for a country-wide burkini ban if he gets elected as president next year. “This is the soul of France that is in question, “Ms. Le Pen wrote in a blog post that strongly supported the burkini ban. According to a survey by Ifpop, 64% of the French public support the ban while the remaining are indifferent. Only 6% are opposed to the ban.

Izzedin Elzir, the imam of Florence and president of the Union of Italian Islamic Communities (UCOII), posted a picture of Catholic nuns in their habits on the beach on the Riviera on his Facebook page, saying that it is hypocritical to allow certain religious outfits in beachwear while prohibiting others.

The burkini or the veil is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The larger problem, in the eyes of French politicians, the media and much of mainstream French society, is the Islamic faith, which is widely perceived as retrogressive and inimical to progress, modernity and women’s rights and at odds with French values. Thus, while addressing a Socialist Party rally, the French prime minister Manuel Valls said France had to reclaim patriotism in the face of Islamist totalitarianism. Ironically, a government that claims to uphold the Republican value of freedom and prizes freedom of expression is now trying to dictate to women what clothing they should wear. Aheda Zanetti told Le Monde that she would like to ask a question: “Do French mayors and politicians want to ban the burkini, or just Muslims?”

The issue of the burkini ban should be seen in a wider historical, political and social context, particularly against the backdrop of France’s colonial legacy, the political elite’s perception of Islam and Muslims, laicite and French national identity. The anxiety that has gripped France in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks over the past 18 months has also contributed to the controversy. On 14 July this year, a truck was deliberately driven into Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Later that month, an 86-year-old Catholic priest was brutally stabbed to death by a member of the so-called Islamic State. In November last year, more than 100 people were killed in a series of shootings and suicide bombings. In January 2015, 12 people were killed in an attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Another factor that has fuelled the controversy is the presidential election in 2017.

French Colonialism, Muslims and the Veil

During the 19th century, France controlled large swathes of territories in North Africa with vast Muslim populations. Since 1830, when Algeria was conquered by France, there has been a widely-held belief in France that Arabs and Muslims are a lesser people, incapable of improvement and so impossible to assimilate to the French way of life. In French eyes, the veil has long been a symbol of the irreducible difference between the country’s Republican values and Islam, which precludes any possibility of assimilation.

The violent imposition of colonial rule over the country was justified in terms of “mission civilisatrice” (civilizing mission)—the introduction of Republican, secular values in a society believed to be steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness. The notion of mission implied that the assimilation of Algerians to French culture was possible. But, on the other hand, and at the same time, the colonial adventure was legitimized by racist depictions of Arabs and Muslims which called into question the very possibility of the civilizing project. Racist attitudes and sentiments are reflected in the writings of some of the most eminent French scholars and intellectuals of the time.

French colonizers and settlers claimed some 675,000 hectares of farmland and 160,000 hectares of forestland in the first 40 years of rule and introduced massive changes in agriculture with a view to implant the French presence permanently, to displace indigenous populations and replace them with representatives of “civilization”. Francois Guizot, minister of foreign affairs in 1846, said that in America as in India, and now in Algeria, one is faced with “people who are half savages, accustomed to devastation and murder and therefore one is obliged to employ more violent and sometimes harsher methods than those who command the soldiers are naturally inclined to use.” One French general called the followers of Islam “our eternal enemy”. The law of 1919 extended naturalization only to those Arab men who were willing to relinquish their “indigenous” status, which included following Islamic law.

During the Algerian war (1954-62), some veiled Algerian women who were involved in the anti-colonial struggle transported messages, cash and arms under cover. So potent an instrument did the veil become that French soldiers patrolling the countryside violated Algerian women first by forcibly removing their veils and then raping them.

Two million French soldiers had fought to keep Algeria under French occupation and 35,000 died fighting. After the liberation, hundreds of thousands of Algerians arrived in France, beginning a long drawn-out process of marginalization. Algerians were soon joined by Tunisians and Moroccans. Muslim immigrants from North Africa were seen as the quintessential Other, as an unassimilated presence that exposed the failure of integration. Their demonisation was reinforced by the far right political parties and the media. Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right National Front, described immigrants as “breeding like rabbits”. The veil was represented as a threat and as an attempt at the takeover of France by Muslims.

The Veil Controversy

Debates about whether girls could wear Islamic headscarves in French public schools erupted in 1989, 1994 and 2003. During this period, one could clearly see a hardening of government’s position on the issue, which was largely a response to the growing political influence of the anti-immigrant far right groups and parties. The events that became known as the affaire du foulard (“affair of the scarf”) began on October 3, 1989, when three Muslim girls who refused to remove their headscarves were expelled from their middle school in the town of Creil. The principal, who expelled the girls, claimed to have been guided in his decision by the cardinal principle of laicite (the French version of secularism). The incident quickly became a major media event, inflaming public uneasiness about the place of North African immigrants and their descendants in French society. The headscarf was widely perceived as a threat to France’s Republican values and ideals.

There were widespread protests against the expulsion of girls by Muslims across the country, which were joined by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious leaders. Those who opposed the expulsion order emphasized that laicite meant respect for and tolerance of differences of religious expression among students. In 1994, 69 girls wearing headscarves were expelled from public schools.

In 2003 the question of headscarves was again brought to national attention when former minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, insisted that Muslim women should take off their headscarves for official identity photographs. In July 2003, former French president Jacques Chirac appointed a commission, headed by a former minister, Bernard Stasi, to explore the feasibility of enacting a law in respect of headscarves. The Stasi Commission submitted its report Laicite et Republique in December 2003. The report reaffirmed the principle of secularism and called for the outlawing of all “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation in public schools. On March 15, 2004, the French government passed a law banning the wearing of “conspicuous” signs of religious affiliation, including a large cross, a veil, a skullcap or a turban, in public schools. Private schools and universities were not governed by the ban. Women in the street were allowed to dress according to their choice. The ban provoked widespread protests by Muslims across France.

The veil is considered inimical to France’s cherished Republican values, including laicite, individualism and universalism. It is considered unacceptable because it insists on the recognition of differences among citizens in a nation one and indivisible and because it entails the subordination of women in a republic premised on equality. Many supporters of the ban looked upon the veil as the ultimate symbol of Islam’s resistance to modernity and an emblem of radical Islamist politics. The supporters of the veil were dubbed as fundamentalists. Former president Jacques Chirac stated in 2003 that “wearing a veil is a kind of aggression.” The veil controversy was seen as a war between the French Republic and Islam, modernity and tradition, and reason and superstition. The veil in French Republican discourse was seen in racist terms; it has conjured up fantasies of domination and submission as well as seduction and terror.

Republican Values

Laicite or secularism is the cornerstone of the French Republic. Roughly speaking, the term secularism denotes the separation of church and state, but there are significant differences in the historical and social context and connotation of secularism. In America, home to religious minorities who fled persecution at the hands of European rulers, the separation between church and state was meant to protect religions from unwarranted intervention by the government. In France, separation was intended to secure the allegiance of individuals to the republic and so break the political power of the Catholic Church. In France, the state protects individuals from religion. It is considered essential to republican democracy that religion is a private affair. The distinction between private and public (religious belief and one’s obligation to the state) is based on traditions historically associated with Christianity.

Laicite is regarded as not just any secularism, but a special and distinctive French version, at once more universal than any other and unique to French ethos, traditions and national character. According to this principle, matters of individual conscience are private and should be free from public interference. “Unlike other secular democracies, France has raised laicite to the level of a founding value,” wrote Bernard Stasi in his report. Laicite is part of the mythology of the specialness and superiority of French republicanism.

A glimpse into the historical and cultural context of laicite is sufficient to expose the mythological superiority of the doctrine. Historically, France has worked out an accommodation with the Catholic Church in many ways. Even after the separation of church and state was mandated by law in 1905, public schools accommodated the desire of parents (and the pressure of churches) for children to have religious instruction and treated it as a right. The secular state also maintains religious buildings as a public responsibility. This applies not only to Christian churches but also to synagogues and to the Paris Mosque, which was built in 1926 to commemorate the sacrifices of Muslim soldiers who died in World War I. Since 1958, the French government has contributed 10 per cent of the budgets of private religious schools. More than 2 million children attend state-supported Catholic schools. The school calendar still observes only Catholic and state holidays. The proposal of the Stasi Commission to add a Jewish and a Muslim holiday was rejected by President Chirac.

In some areas even more dramatic compromises with religion have been worked out. The three departments of Alsace-Moselle, lost at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and regained after World War I, have never been required to conform to the terms of the 1905 pact. In Alsace-Moselle, religious instruction (for Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Jews) is still a mandatory part of the curriculum in public schools. With the permission of their parents, children who do not want to take these classes may substitute courses in morality. The controversy surrounding the veil in France is the result of a sustained polemic, a political discourse which emphasizes assimilation of immigrants and minorities into France’s dominant culture. The attack on the veil does not represent a struggle between tradition and modernity or about the presumably universal values such as the separation of church and state. Rather, it is symptomatic of the deep-seated prejudices that white Christian Europeans harbour against Muslims.

Over the years, assimilation has been the standard for becoming French and, at the same time, the characterization of Muslims as an unassimilable group has persisted alongside it.

French National Identity

For more than a century, French national identity has been defined in terms of the Republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity, laicite (a foundational feature of the French state for which secularism represents an imperfect translation), a homogeneous national culture, the pre-eminence of the French language and the assimilation of foreigners and immigrants. In reality, French society is no longer culturally homogeneous but has in fact become multiethnic and culturally diverse. The veil, as well as halal food and Islamic schools, has become a symbol of collective anxiety and a threat to national identity. Terrence Peterson, a professor at Florida International University, who has studied France’s relations with Muslim immigrants, says that the bikini ban is “a way to police what is French and what is not French. According to him, the controversy over the burkini ban is in reality a contestation over what it means to be French.

The burkini ban and the hysteria that has come to surround the issue sends out an unambiguous message to French Muslims, who account for about 9 of the population, that they should abandon their religious and ethnic identity and assimilate themselves into the French national culture. But the burkini ban is likely to be counter-productive as it will further exclude and alienate the Muslims.

US President Barack Obama, in his widely-reported speech in Cairo in 2009, said that Western countries should avoid “dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear” under “the pretence of liberalism.”

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