Day at the beach.

Photographer: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

What the Fuss Over Burkinis Is Really About

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

It was rather obvious that France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, would strike down bans on unrevealing swimwear instituted this summer by French coastal towns. Last Friday, it reversed the first such ban, by the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet. Though some mayors still don't see why they should cancel their orders, rights activists will soon be on their case, too, and the precedent promises similar outcomes in most of these disputes.

The underlying problem that spawned the comical burkini bans, however, will not go away. It's that of integration: How well should people of different cultures blend into a society before it stops trying to push them away?

As the French poet George Brassens once sang, "The good folks don't like it when someone walks a different path than they do." France has a long history of intolerance toward otherness, and it's part of a powerful European tradition that has often led to horrible extremes as well as to ridiculous ones. The success of attempts to dress it up in legal robes has ultimately depended on the uniformity of public sentiment.

The anti-burkini decrees adopted in 31 French towns this year mostly seek to establish beaches as religiously neutral areas. A Nice administrative court affirmed the move by Mayor Lionnel Luca of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds that the wearing of burkinis could "exacerbate the tension felt by the population after a series of Islamist attacks in France" and that "whatever the religion or belief in question, the beaches are not an adequate place for ostentatious displays of religious convictions." The urgent applications judge of the Council of State overturned this decision, pointing out that "no evidence was brought before him that risks of breaches against peace and good order existed, on the beaches of Villeneuve-Loubet, in relation with the clothes worn by some people."

In other words, the high court wants evidence that a danger to public order comes from a specific style of clothing. Such proof is hard to come by. Even the mayor of Sisco in Corsica, who banned burkinis after an actual outburst of violence on the town beach, will find it hard to argue that it was burkinis that caused it. Some North African women were indeed bathing fully clothed when their men thought a tourist had tried to photograph them and started an altercation, which local youths joined. Five people were wounded, and 100 police officers were needed to stop the riot. Was the Muslim women's clothing to blame, or were the hot tempers on both sides? I'd vote for the latter.

Sisco Mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni is a Socialist and he claims that his ban is not preemptive as in other towns, but just a sensible safety measure after the riot. Most of the anti-burkini mayors, however, are right-wingers. Luca is a well-known defender of France's colonialist past. David Rachline, who banned burkinis in Frejus, is a far-right National Front member who campaigned on the promise to stop the construction of a mosque in the town and kept his word after winning, only to be forced into retreat by the courts. Cannes Mayor David Lisnard, a center-right politician, has called burkinis "a sign of radicalization."

For these politicians, and for folks in Sisco, always ready for a brawl with those they see as aggressive strangers, the problem is that Muslims don't appear, in Lisnard's words, to "comply with France's rules." They flaunt their religion, and they separate themselves from the rest of the community.

As my Bloomberg View colleague Toby Harshaw has pointed out, unemployment and imprisonment statistics show that Muslims have found it hard to integrate into European societies. That creates the instinctive desire among locals and the politicians who represent them to force them to conform or leave. The emotion is more important than any result that could be achieved by legislating on it. It's hard to see how police harassment of women on beaches can reduce ethnic tension, but easy to understand the comfort many white Christian voters get from government attempts to make different-looking people be more like them.

After the Council of State decision, burkini-ban advocates have demanded a special law to uphold the bans. "If we accept the burkini today, we will end up with the sharia," legislator Nicolas Dupont-Aignan said. That's an emotional argument, but it does suggest an answer to the key question: what kind of integration France really wants from its 7.5 percent Muslim population. 

Right-wing politicians want integration to be total. They'd like everyone who lives in France -- or in any other European country -- to look and act the same as the ethnic majority and to hold the same values that, they believe, have led these nations to prosperity. Their religion and customs should ideally be abandoned, but if they can't be, they should be followed privately and unostentatiously. Otherwise why choose to live in a country historically based on a certain way of life?

The opposite, minimalist approach -- taken, for example, by Angela Merkel's German government -- is purely practical. It's described by Germany's recently adopted law on the integration of refugees. Simply stated, the principle is that "work is the best integration." As long as a Muslim or any other newcomer speaks the language and has a job, he or she is considered well-integrated.

European societies' views are more complex than either of these approaches. They want to be more homogeneous, and they resent what majorities throughout Europe see as Muslims' tendency to be distinct. On the other hand, the share of people who think of Muslims in this way is dropping in European countries, according to Pew Global: While in 2005, 88 percent of Germans said Muslims set themselves apart, that share is down to 61 percent this year. This has little to do with Muslims giving up their traditional ways; German cities are full of women in Muslim headdresses, and there are plenty of businesses with signs in Turkish and Arabic. Rather, society has become more diverse, and otherness is now less noticeable.

That's a slow process, though. Integration into a society's fabric is a constantly changing palette of choices, because the social fabric itself isn't stable. Some Muslims will, and do, end up giving up their traditional culture and fully accept Western values. Others will seek a balance and find it. And a small group will hate what they see, turn hostile and choose a life of isolation or crime. The women who wear burkinis to the beach are obviously part of the second group: They want to spend time like their European peers while sticking to their tradition. Otherwise they would either wear bikinis or stay off the beach altogether.

It's up to European societies whether they want to accept and support their search for a middle way or to push them toward the extremes. The former path appears more reasonable to the French Council of State, the latter to the two thirds of the French public who support the burkini bans. The 1952 Brassens song -- written when bikinis, not burkinis, were banned on most French beaches -- is far from obsolete.

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:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net