Not exactly Brigitte Bardot.

Photographer: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Serious Purpose Behind France's Silly Burkini Ban

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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French beaches have never been a place for modesty, at least not since a 17-year-old Brigitte Bardot scandalized the film world in 1952's "Manina, the Girl in the Bikini." But this summer, at an increasing number of resort towns, Muslim women are finding out just how serious the French are about bare skin on the sand.

Last week, Nice became the latest of more than a dozen vacation destinations to ban the wearing of a full-body-covering swimsuit -- known cheekily as the burkini. The city, still reeling from the Bastille Day truck attack that killed 86, will fine women 38 euros for failing to wear "an outfit respecting good morals and secularism." National figures have joined the cause, like Manuel Valls, the tough-talking prime minister, and National Front leader Marine Le Pen, never one to let a controversy go unexploited.

Yet, predictably, most of the reaction has been negative. "I do not see the disturbance in public order from a woman who goes swimming dressed," said Marwan Muhammad, director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. "This government is too busy chasing innocent Muslim women to fight against terrorism.” 

Amia Ghali, a Muslim member of the French Senate, added that the entire debate is "an unnecessary controversy which maintains the confusion on the real issues of our struggles. Intolerance must not change camps.” Others hold that the ban helps the Islamic State, and that secularism is "being invoked as the reason for policing Muslims’ day-to-day lives and suppressing their ability to express their faith."

In truth, however, the issue is both more and less significant than the controversy might indicate. For starters, the full-body covering has never been very popular on the French coast. Most pious Muslim women on the beach simply wear head scarves and light clothing to maintain their piety.

In truth, the importance of the burkini debate, like the banning of veils and other face coverings -- enacted for schools in 2004 and then in all public spaces in 2010 -- isn't about stopping what are in fact very infrequent practices (only an estimated 2,000 women covered their faces before that ban). Rather, it is a reflection of France's stumbling efforts to assimilate the vast Muslim population it inherited from its former colonies.

So the conflict is not new. The political and cultural debates over Muslim immigrants long predated the global struggle against Islamic terrorism and the 9/11 attacks. Concerns over wearing of the hijab in school were a political issue in France as far back as the 1980s.

More broadly, while for decades after World War II France was dependent on foreign workers to do unskilled jobs, by the early 1990s attitudes shifted. The conservative government set a goal of "zero immigration" and enacted the so-called Pasqua laws that, among other things, denied residence to foreign spouses of legal residents, made it difficult for students from other countries to get jobs after graduation, enhanced the state's power to deport illegal aliens and made it harder to claim asylum.

In the last quarter-decade, what began with concern over keeping French jobs for the French-born became a culture war. Today about 7.5 percent of France's population of 60 million are from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, although they make up a vastly larger proportion of the under-25 population. This mass immigration inevitably challenges a society that, since the revolution of 1790s, has been adamantly secular.

In the eyes of many of their European neighbors, what the French call "laïcité" is simply bigotry. In 1994, the Dutch enacted an immigration policy known as the Contourennota, with a stated goal to "improve the socio-economic position of disadvantaged ethnic minorities" through a system in which "the government is obligated to offer opportunities and immigrants and their children are obligated to grasp them." The government funds Islamic schools, headscarves are allowed everywhere after a government committee found that the hijab was not a threat and that Dutch laws required "tolerant" attitudes in public education. Sweden, long the world's leader in accepting refugees seeking asylum, has been similarly accommodating with Islam.

And yet … let's look at the results. A Pew Global Research survey conducted this spring, months after the terrorist attacks that killed 130 in Paris, found that 29 percent of French respondents had a negative view of Islam. Yet in both the Netherlands and Sweden, which haven't experienced terrorism on a mass scale, 35 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Muslims in their own country. And a more or less equal percentage in all three nations said that Muslims wanted to be "distinct" rather than "adopt our country's way of life."   

The Muslim populations themselves continue to lag behind the native-born in all those countries on most social and economic indicators: employment, wealth, education, rates of incarceration, etc. For example, while Muslims make up 5 percent of the Dutch population, they make up 20 percent of adult prisoners.

In any case, the burkini ban will bring out the usual charges of hypocrisy and the awkward alliances we see in all such contretemps: It's apparently hard, for example, for a supporter of free expression or even a feminist to know which side to support.

But for the most part we will see easy moralizing on the supposed inhumanity of the French approach, like this from a Newsweek column by Elizabeth Oldfield:

The instinct to deal with our differences by enforcing homogeneity looks, at least superficially, more appealing than allowing public space to descend into a competition between fractious and visible tribal identities.

The problem with this “muscular liberal” approach is a pragmatic one -- it doesn’t work …

Is our desired end state achieved by enforcing a worldview, or by building a society where despite some pretty fundamental disagreements everyone feels they have a stake, are welcome and want to participate as good citizens?

But as the facts illuminate, such criticisms ignore the equally apparent failures of politically correct approaches intended to create a society in which "everyone feels they have a stake."

Hence the real tragedy of the burkini distraction: Such contretemps obscure the fact that neither the laïcité of the French nor the laxity of their neighbors has succeeded in making Muslim immigrants part of the national fabric.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net