The image of a woman being forced to disrobe by armed police on a French beach in late August created such shockwaves around the world that even Fox News presenter and Trump supporter, Tom Shillue, came out in defence of the burkini. It has taken decades and a highly emotive image for the implications of France’s fraught relationship with its minority communities to be made apparent to the world, but there are no signs that any lessons have been learnt from this.
The woman in question was lying on a beach in Nice which, along with 30 or so other coastal towns in France, had introduced a burkini ban this summer. In response, the French Human Rights League (LDH) successfully appealed the ban in France’s highest administrative court, the State Council. The court said the ban “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms to come and go, freedom of beliefs and individual freedom”. The case for the town of Villeneuve-Loubet in Nice was expected to set a precedent for the other towns which eventually followed suit. However, a court in the French Mediterranean island of Corsica is still upholding its ban.
According to Human Rights Watch France Director, Bénédicte Jeannerod, the burkini Ban is a form of collective punishment in response to the recent spate of Daesh terror attacks in the region. If it is a form of collective punishment, then the mayors who introduced the bans are making a direct connection between the practice of a faith, and the ideological drive behind Daesh.
The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, who refused to uphold the State Council ruling at first, has made this connection more overtly. The first mayor to ban the burkini this summer, he said: “Beachwear that ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order”.
The Court in Nice first defended its burkini ban by saying it was “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach”. This statement undermines the only defence of the burkini ban, that of Laïcité, the constitutional imperative of Secularism in France. By positing religious garments worn by Muslim women as offensive to other religions, the court in Nice has shown that the problem is not the ostentatious practice of religion generally, but exclusively the practice of a specific religion followed by its poorer communities.
In 1989 when three French schoolgirls were suspended for refusing to remove their head coverings, the laïcité card was also played. But laïcité has been in the constitution since 1905. It is only relatively recently, and not that long after France’s loss of its colonial territories, that it has been used in a more draconian manner.
This habit of maligning France’s Muslim community has barely been contested by politicians or public commentators. Even when French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, criticised the ban as unconstitutional, he seemed only worried that it would fuel tensions rather than marginalise an already marginalised community. He recently announced “a day of consultations” to take place with religious figures, civil groups and parliamentarians, seeking to get Islam more “anchored in the values of the Republic”. This places the onus on Muslims to continue to assimilate rather than on the government to change its policies towards a directly and indirectly disadvantaged community.
The colonial hangover
France’s colonial conquests were considered a mission civilisatrice—that is, a mission to export European culture to other countries in order to “civilize” them. When it controlled vast Muslim regions, the hijab was seen as a symbol of backwardness, and Frenchwomen’s standards of dress were seen as a sign of French cultural superiority, views that helped to justify colonialism.
Half a century has passed since France lost its former colonies, but colonial attitudes are still embedded in the country’s treatment of its own citizens who are descendants of the former colonial population. Despite being a multi-ethnic, multiracial and multifaith society, France still refuses to measure race, ethnicity, or religion in its censuses. As a result, there is no way of measuring how your life chances and opportunities differ if you are BME in France, and no way of producing evidence to inform better policy and tackle the very high possibility of discrimination across society.
According to a study by the Open Society Justice initiative in 2011, French residents of immigrant origin—some of whose families have been living in France for multiple generations—have complained of discriminatory targeting by the police when stopped for allegedly random identity checks. This creates a strong case that ethnic profiling is occurring in France. Even if this procedure is found to be contravening human rights in a court of law, there is no way to monitor police discrimination to stop it from happening again due to the absence of official data.
Prime minister Manuel Valls acknowledged the marginalisation of some of France’s communities when he vowed to tackle France’s “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. However, he has publicly supported the recent banning of the burkini, saying it was “not compatible with the values of the French Republic.” Far from living up to his promise, he has helped to create the grounds for a new kind of apartheid: this time a religious one.