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QuickTake Q&A: France, Home of Fashion, Fusses Over the Burkini


France’s constitutional court overturned one seaside town’s ban on the so-called Burkini, the full-body swim wear used by some Muslim women to maintain their modesty while enjoying a day at the beach. That’s hardly the end of the story. Thirty or so other towns have enacted similar bans on full-body swim wear and mayors of some of those towns say they will defy the decision, guaranteeing more legal challenges. Though the Burkini is common in places like Australia, emotions are still high in France following the Bastille Day rampage in Nice by a truck driver who pledged allegiance to Islamic State. He killed 84 people. In a poll released Aug. 24, 64 percent of the French said they are opposed to women wearing Burkinis on the beach.

1. What is a ‘Burkini’? 

It’s a swimming outfit designed by Lebanese-born Australian Aheda Zanetti who since 2004 has produced various sporting outfits with conservative Muslim women in mind, even if she’s said in interviews that about 40 percent of her clients wear them not for religious reasons but because of skin cancer protection or because of discomfort with their figures. She has trademarked the name.

2. What’s the case against Burkinis?

Politicians on France’s political right, seeking votes by being tough on immigration, denounce the Burkini as an in-your-face push to impose a fundamentalist version of Islam in a country that has been hammered by Islamist terror attacks. Politicians on the left, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, see the anti-fundamentalist argument gaining traction and have come up with a rationale of their own: the ban is necessary to defend the rights of women. This creates the odd spectacle of the state telling women what they can’t wear while objecting to a religion telling women what to wear.

3. Is anybody defending the Burkini?

Cabinet ministers including Marisol Touraine and Najat Vallaud-Belkacem have all said in one way or another that the Burkini bans are misguided and have called for everyone to calm down. Alain Juppe, the former prime minister who is seeking the presidential nomination of the opposition Republican party, says politicians should stop “throwing oil on the fire” and that laws shouldn’t be made according to the latest media controversy. Imams of major French cities have said the bans stigmatize the few Muslims who wear the garment of their own free choice.

4. Hasn’t France had other debates over religion and clothing?

Yes. France has about 4.7 million Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center, as well as a tradition of secularism. The two sometimes conflict. About 15 years of impassioned debate resulted in a 2004 law banning headscarves in schools. The issue didn’t go away. In 2010, then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration brought in a law forbids face-covering veils. Another debate, as yet unresolved, involves whether schools should always offer pork-free lunches. Both the headscarf and veil debates turned a marginal phenomenon into a national controversies.

5. What’s next?

Sarkozy, who was ousted in 2012 and is running again in next year’s election, has called for a national prohibition of Burkinis, as well as banning Muslim headscarves in all public buildings and workplaces. Florian Philippot, vice-president of the anti-immigrant National Front, by some measures France’s largest party, has said religious signs such as headscarves, large crosses and yarmulkes should be banned throughout France. Both have cited “laicité,” or the secularism enshrined in a 1905 law separating church and state.

6. What does the 1905 law actually say?

The law separated church and state, secularized schools and hospitals, and introduced divorce and compulsory civil marriages. It overturned Napoleon’s 1801 Concordat with the Vatican, which had re-established the Catholic Church as the state religion after a revolutionary interlude. Although the 1905 law is often used to justify banning religious symbols in public, it actually calls for strict state neutrality and freedom of religion. As critics point out, the law was adopted after centuries of church building in France and after a century of busy synagogue construction by France’s newly emancipated Jews. Even today, bans on state funding for religion have limited Muslims’ ability to build adequate mosques.

7. What’s the state of religious observance in France?

President Francois Hollande describes himself as agnostic. Prayers are never read in parliament, as in the U.S. Congress. Crucifixes are never hung in public buildings, as in Italy. France’s Muslims, who account for 5 to 10 percent of the population depending on who is counting, began arriving in the 1950s.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake Q&A on France as a target of terror.
  • A story on French Muslims fearing the rise of Burkini politics.
  • A story on Islamic fashion’s expanding market.
  • Five women explain why they wear the Burkini.
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