Overturned burkini ban anecdotal of growing racism, Islamophobia in France

(Photo Credit: cabellmon via Flickr Creative Commons)

After a ban on burkinis in France was tossed out by the country’s top administrative body, the topic of women’s religious clothing and their freedom to wear it remains an issue in France.  But the flap over  full-body swimwear is more than just about coverage – it’s become a central theme in the political sphere in the country that is growing increasingly intolerant of Islam.  FSRN’s Khaled Sid Mohand has more from Paris.

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The French “council of state” – the highest administrative authority in the country – overturned a ban on the burkini, the full body swimwear that has grown in popularity among mainly Muslim women. Three weeks ago, the Mayor of the southern coastal town of Villeneuve Loubet issued a burkini ban on area beaches – and 30 other towns quickly followed suit.

Patrice Spinozi is with the Human Rights League, the group that brought the challenge to the ban. Speaking on the state building steps, he reads from the judgment that says the ban seriously breached fundamental freedoms and impinged “on the principle of equality of citizens before the law, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of movement.”

But despite the ruling, the debate is far from over and the swimwear issue is just an example of the political climate and social setting within which it is playing out.

According to recent polls, two-thirds of the French population support the ban. And the country’s former president, Nicholas Sarkozy – who has officially declared his intention to run in the next presidential election – has promised that should he win he’ll ban the full-face veil, known as the burqa or niqab.

“It is extremely troubling, because this has become a political instrument from the perspective of the next presidential elections,” says Michel Tubiana, former president of the Human Rights League. “The elections bring political competition, a competition of discrimination and stigmatization of our fellow Muslim citizens. And in the long term we might face a real problem of cohesion and civil peace.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has reiterated his support for the bans, and all the right wing mayors who imposed similar restrictions have said they will not lift them.

Michele Sibony is a senior member of the Jewish Union for Peace. Sibony compares the current climate for Muslims in France to the 1930s when the Jewish community lived under rampant anti-Semitism.

“It is the elites who have spread this venom into the population for many years – so-called major journalists and intellectuals, along with French politicians fueling the hate,” Sibony says. “By arguing for this hate, people were inoculated with it, and there comes a time where a single match will be enough.”

To spark what?

“To spark what, we, the Jewish, call pogroms,” says Sibony.

So far, the burkini bans are clustered in the south of France, but the growing nationalism and Islamophobia is not. Forty-two-year-old Louisa just returned from the western beaches of Normandy, where she swam wearing a burkini. With no ban in place there, she wasn’t fined or forced to strip. But she felt uncomfortable by the stares as the polemic raged day after day. She’s concerned for her children’s future.

“I wish for them to find a good situation and a good job and now it’s sad to say, that that’s not in France,” Louisa explains. “Every day I tell them you have to be good at school. Why? So that you can choose what you want to do later, I wish you to go abroad and to discover another way of life, away from discrimination and racism.”