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Bikinis? Burqinis? In Cannes They Test Your Swimsuit for ‘Secularism’

The ban in Cannes of the Muslim bathing suit known as a ‘burqini’ was intended as a statement of secularism. In fact, it’ s a declaration of intolerance.

PARIS — Not long after the horror in Nice a month ago—as soon as the police barricades were cleared, and while flowers and stuffed toys were piling up in memory of the 85 people who died—topless sunbathers were back on the beach beside the azure waters just below the scene of carnage on the Promenade des Anglais.

The banality of bare breasts seemed a statement of defiant normality, given where we were and what had happened: a two-bit sexual hustler with a Muslim background looking to turn his shitty little life into a global spectacle, apparently after he'd embraced the publicity campaign of the so-called Islamic State, drove a truck through the crowd that had been watching Bastille Day fireworks.

But nothing was going to stop French sun worshippers at the height of summer. The topless women on the beach were mostly senior citizens, but that’s the Riviera for you. Men, whether pot-bellied or buff, wear Speedos or their moral equivalent. And younger women these days tend to wear fairly classic bikinis.

So, what is the dress code on the sun-drenched strands of the Côte d’Azur? Until this last month it was pretty much according to your taste.

But now, if you are a Muslim woman who wants to cover her body at the beach, whether to satisfy yourself, the man in your life, Allah, your dermatologist, or all of the above, that’s become a problem, and the city of Cannes—famous for its film festival and the starlets flaunting their two-piece splendor—has declared that your outfit, widely known as a “burqini,” is banned. A French court, moreover, has backed that up.

As with so much in the overlapping debates about immigration, integration, Islam, and terror in France, this measure smacks of political posturing. It’s not as if the Croisette in Cannes is crawling with women in these designer body suits (which is what many burqinis are), and it’s unlikely the rule will be enforced against the Saudi and other Gulf princesses coming in from their yachts—certainly not in this depressed tourist season.

So at its most obvious level, this is about a right-wing politician taking a stand not just against burqinis, but, symbolically, against Muslims, and presenting it as a matter of law and order.

Only in today’s France can one imagine beachwear having to pass a test for “secularism,” but here you have it.

The municipal bylaw in Cannes was put forth by Mayor David Lisnard, a member of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s increasingly far-right party (now called Les Républicains) on July 28.

That was two days after a couple of jihadists cut the throat of an 86-year-old priest in a church in Normandy very far from the beach and even farther from Cannes. But no matter:

“Beach wear that ostentatiously presents a religious affiliation while France and places of worship are now the target of terrorist attacks is likely to create the risk of disturbances to public order (mobs, scuffles) that it’s necessary to prevent,” said the bylaw. Therefore, access to beaches is prohibited until after Aug. 31 “to any person not properly dressed, respectful of morality and secularism.” Violators will be fined €38 ($42).

One would think the issue would be the behavior of men who might gather in mobs, start scuffles, and otherwise disturb the peace because women are wearing, yes, too many clothes. But for the mayor of Cannes the problem lies with those provocative women—a sentiment that weirdly mirrors the reasoning in some Muslim-majority countries that require women to wear burqinis if they go to the beach at all, lest they incite disorder by lust-crazed men.

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And that’s precisely where we enter into the perverse details of this issue: the matter of Muslim groups in France that don’t share French ideals and values and that require women to cover up at the beach—in France—whether they want to or not.

In Marseilles, which has a very large Muslim population, the municipal beaches have always been a kind of summertime melting pot where it was common to see women of Muslim backgrounds wearing bikinis even if, in some cases, they changed back into gowns and veils before heading home.

But in recent years, as ultra-conservative Salafist Islam has gained a foothold in the rough northern districts of Marseilles, more and more burqinis have appeared on the city’s popular beaches. When a local water park was reserved for a “burqini-only” day in September, it provoked an instant, predictable, outraged response from the right wing.

Less predictable was the nature of the group that had promoted the burqini day. Its friendly name, “Smile 13,” was hard to square with its Facebook page, now taken down, which was full of Quranic imprecations against “unbelievers,” meaning Christians. That fact immediately was seized on by the militant right, of course. And finally the event was canceled.

The Cannes bylaw banning burqinis, meanwhile, was challenged by civil liberties organizations and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) as a “new attack on the most basic rights.” But on Saturday the court rejected demands for an immediate injunction to stop enforcement of the ban, which is only in effect for another couple of weeks in any case. The case will continue in the courts after the August vacation.

For the CCIF, the precedent set by the burqini-banning bylaw is a threat to any public manifestation of religious conviction. But for Thierry Migoule, a staffer at Cannes city hall, this is not about mere religious symbols. The ban is aimed at “ostentatious clothes that show an allegiance to terrorist movements who are making war on us,” he told AFP with notable but no doubt heart-felt hyperbole.

“If there hadn’t been the bylaw, there would have been many more burqinis on French beaches,” says scholar Gilles Kepel, author of a best-selling book on Islamist terror in France. Certain styles of Muslim dress for women are used in what Kepel calls “enclave areas” as a test of state authority, he said.

The edict in Cannes “is not great in terms of law,” Kepel told me on the phone Sunday, “but we are dealing with expediency.” Fear and anger are driving French voters to the right and the far right, beyond Sarkozy to Marine Le Pen of the National Front. “If we make the electorate feel that we are lenient on this, we will have Marine Le Pen [for president],” said Kepel, reflecting the views of many worried centrists.

Here in the French capital emotions are not quite so raw as down south, even though Paris has seen a great deal of terrorism over the last two years.

The city is largely empty on this biggest holiday of the summer, which marks The Assumption, the day the Catholic Church says the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken “body and soul into heavenly glory.” (Note, this is a government day off. Secularism has its exceptions where holidays are concerned.)

This summer is also, as it happens, the anniversary of the bikini as a registered name for a skimpy two-piece bathing suit that became a headline-grabbing sensation around the world in 1946. Posters have been put up all over town with a stunning image of Ava Gardner that advertises a commemorative show devoted to the beachwear. The only burqinis on display at the exhibition, as it turns out, are those worn in France more than 100 years ago, shown to demonstrate how far we’ve come showing off, and freeing up, the female body.

Continuing my search for a burqini in the city of light, I walked the lengthy of “Paris Plage,” the pop-up beach along the Seine, but no burqinis were to be seen.

Then it occurred to me that around the old red-light district of Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre there are not only sex shops catering to fetishists, there are fabric stores and dress shops whose clientele mostly comes from North Africa, and as it turned out one of the best known of those stores, La Rose de l’Orient, was open Sunday.

Back behind rack upon rack of brilliantly colored caftans and gowns, I found a young woman at the register wearing a rather drab traditional hijab, or head scarf.

“Do you sell swimsuits that cover the whole body?” I asked after explaining that I was a reporter.

“No,” she said. “Not here in the store. People order those on the internet.”

I asked her if she wore one. She shook her head, mildly horrified.

“That’s for the bled [the village],” she said. “That’s for Algeria.”

Which the mayor of Cannes might say is the point.

Update, August 17, 2016: In addition to Cannes, four more French resort towns are planning to ban the burqini (also spelled burkini), while Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls also has waded into the debate, declaring the wearing of the burqini is "not compatible with the values of France and the Republic." The best known of the towns in question is Le Touquet near Calais on the Channel. "There are no burkinis in Le Touquet at the moment, but I don't want the town hall to be caught offguard if we are affected by this phenomenon," the mayor told AFP. Oye-Plage in the same region, appears to have used similar reasoning, as did Villeneuve-Loubet, between Cannes and Nice. The Socialist mayor of Sisco in Corsica decided to ban burqinis after people taking pictures of women wearing the attire incited an ugly brawl in which hatchets and harpoons reportedly were brought to bear.