France – Armed police surrounding Muslim women on beaches and ordering them to remove their modest clothes or leave. Calls from onlookers to “go back to where you came from.” Public humiliation and ostracism with echoes of the morals police of theocratic countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, not a country that sees its values as a paragon of Western freedoms.
Those uncomfortable images have come to dominate the ongoing debate over identity and assimilation as France’s coastal municipalities attempt to enforce new bans on the “burkini,” the full-body bathing suit designed to accommodate Islamic modesty codes.
On Wednesday, photographs flashed across the globe on social media of French police officers forcing modestly clad Muslim women on beaches to pay fines, leave or disrobe. A storm of criticism erupted, followed by some political backpedaling a week after the nation’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, had denounced the little-worn burkini as a tool of “enslavement.”
At least 20 municipalities on the Mediterranean, as well as several in northern France, have enacted bans against the garment on the grounds that it is not “appropriate,” “respectful of good morals and of secularism” and “respectful of the rules of hygiene and security of bathers on public beaches.”
Organizations including the Collective Against Islamophobia in France and the League of Human Rights have challenged the restrictions in local courts, but so far the rules have been upheld.
Now that the bans, which are vaguely worded, have apparently hit not just women wearing burkinis but others in a wide range of modest clothing, some French organizations and politicians that previously had said little have begun to worry that the new rules are discriminatory and unenforceable.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who met with the French Council of the Muslim Faith after an urgent request from the organization, said that the enforcement should not “stigmatize” people or “set one against another.”
Mr. Valls’s own Socialist Party said in a statement that the enforcement was putting the country in a “particularly dangerous downward spiral,” citing “the attitude of the crowd” that gathered around a woman being confronted by three officers in Cannes last week.
The officers surrounded the woman, who was wearing a tunic, leggings and a head scarf, fined her and ordered her to leave the beach. The woman was at the beach with her children, and said she was a third-generation French citizen from Toulouse.
A crowd gathered. “I heard things I had never heard to my face,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Siam to the French magazine L’Obs. “Like, ‘Go back to where you came from’ ‘Madame, the law is the law, we are fed up with this fuss,’ and ‘We are Catholic here.’”
– The New York Times