18th Mar 2018

France tries to defuse burkini row

  • Nice authorities said some people might feel that the burkini was "an act of defiance or a provocation" (Photo: reuters)

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve has warned against the "stigmatisation" of Muslims and called for a "proportionate" implementation of anti-burkini municipal decrees.

Cazeneuve spoke on Wednesday (24 August) after pictures were shared worldwide of policemen in Nice imposing a fine to a woman on a beach for wearing a scarf and leggings.

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The woman was not wearing a burkini, a swimming outfit covering all the body which has been banned in 26 French seaside towns in recent weeks.

The pictures, which suggested she was also forced to undress, prompted outrage.

"How many armed policemen do you need to oblige a woman to undress in public," asked Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for the human right organisation Human Rights Watch.

Tunisian political activist Amira Yahyaoui talked of a "new fascism" and said that the French government was "worse than Trump".

After meeting the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), Cazeneuve said the French concept of secularism must be implemented, but that care should be taken not to stigmatise or antagonise anyone.

He said the decrees should be "rigorously proportionate [to] stop or prevent breaches of public order".

CFCM president Anouar Kbibech said he was "reassured" by Cazeneuve's word but that he was "deeply moved and concerned" by the current controversies over how Muslims dress.

He said that "Muslims reaffirm all the time their attachment to the values of the republic, to equality between men and women".

Nice was the first town to ban the burkini on beaches on 28 July. The decree was taken two weeks after a man drove a lorry in a crowd and killed 85 people, in an attack that was claimed by the Islamic State militant group.

The attack and earlier ones in France and Europe sparked a new debate about security but also about the integration of Muslims in France.

The debate is likely to grow ahead of the presidential and legislative elections next year, where the far-right National Front is expected to score high.

Nice local authorities said some people could feel that the burkini was "an act of defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by the population".

'Dangerous drift'

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who said this week he would stand in next year's election, said on Wednesday that the burkini was a "provocation in the service of political Islam".

"If we don't stop it, the risk is that in 10 years, young Muslim women who won't wear the veil or the burkini will be finger-pointed and under daily pressure from people around them," he said.

Earlier this month, prime minister Manuel Valls said he "understood" mayors who banned burkinis because they "look for solutions to avoid breaches to public order".

But the left is divided. While interior minister Cazeneuve did not criticise the Nice policemen, his Socialist Party said what happened in Nice was a "particularly dangerous drift".

The Socialists said that the reasons why the woman was fined "cannot not be compatible with the principles of our law".

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