It started with a controversial law and a provocative picture.
This summer 15 French beach towns officially banned the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit designed to adhere to “Islamic values.” But it wasn’t until a picture went viral—a Muslim woman surrounded by four male officers forcing her to remove her burkini—that a global conversation was launched.
On Aug. 26 France’s highest court ruled the so-called burkini ban was “a serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms” and overruled it. But the controversy in France, and around the world, is far from over. For starters, the French court’s ruling was against just one city’s law, and several other French cities said they’ll continue to enforce their own bans.
The mayor of Cannes, for instance, has said the beachwear doesn’t respect “good morals and secularism” while Mayor Lionnel Luca of Villeneuve-Loubet said, “I was informed that there was a couple on one of our beaches where the wife was swimming fully dressed,” Luca said. “I considered that unacceptable for hygienic reasons and that in general it was unwelcome.”
But perhaps the biggest sign this issue is far from over is French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy’s public support for the ban. “I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools…there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic’s territory.”
THE OBVIOUS, AND NOT SO OBVIOUS, REASONS FOR THE BAN
On one hand the motivation for France’s ban on the burkini is obvious. Since the beginning of 2015 there have been 10 attacks or attempted attacks attributed to Islamist extremist groups, culminating in the Bastille Day attack where 86 died and 434 were injured when a man drove a truck and fired a weapon into a crowd of people.
This, combined with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Jan. 2015 and the coordinated concert attacks in Nov. 2015 have led to a high state of tension about the presence of Muslims in French society. This has only been exacerbated by the larger percentage of Muslims residing in France, where they make up 8 percent of the population (double the percentage of Britain and four times that of Germany). However, there’s another less obvious—and arguably more important—reason France is more aggressively outlawing certain types of Islamic expression.
In the United States freedom of religion is deeply ingrained in the country’s origin story. In France, it’s the exact opposite, where religious establishment was tied to the monarchy and the French Revolution was a deliberate, secular rejection of both. The current French Constitution, adopted in 1958, starts with the memorable phrase that “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic”. As Jonathan Eyal points out in a recent column, in French culture public displays of religion are seen as a regressive step back from enlightenment, reason and the values of the French republic. A 2011 law that banned burqas altogether also banned Jewish skullcaps and overly attention-grabbing crosses. It also stated no new religious symbols can be placed in public places, including graveyards. All these laws were passed with overwhelming public support.
It makes sense then that France would be actively fighting against any obvious Islamic expressions happening in public arenas, but it also might cast France’s recent actions in a different light to many Americans. France’s actions are more than just a response to acts of terror, they are an expression of a belief deeply seated in French society: Religion is irrelevant.