Burkini clash sets tone for France’s elections

A picture shows a placard held by a demonstrator at a protest organised by "Stand up to Racism" outside the French Embassy in London on August 26, 2016 against the Burkini ban on French beaches. (File photo: AFP)

The national identity crisis exposed by France’s burkini controversy is threatening to set the tone for the country’s presidential campaign.

A top court ruling Friday against banning the head-to-ankle swimwear didn’t put an end to the debate.

Along with the economy, the relationship between France’s Muslims and non-Muslims has been a recurring theme as presidential hopefuls kick off campaigning for the April-May elections.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy told a campaign rally he wants a national law banning burkinis.

His chief rival for the conservative nomination, Alain Juppe, has called for a special accord between the state and Muslim leaders to lay out clear rules for respecting French secularism.

Some leftist candidates have criticized the burkini as oppressing women, but say the far right is using the issue to encourage racism.

“Battle of cultures”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the ban  in more than a dozen coastal towns on Thursday, saying France was locked in a “battle of cultures” and that the full-body swimsuit symbolised the enslavement of women.

Photographs of armed police ordering a Muslim woman on a beach in the Mediterranean city of Nice to partially disrobe went viral on social media this week, upsetting many French Muslims and causing global consternation.

In a sign of rifts opening in the socialist government before a presidential election in 2017, France's Moroccan-born education minister said the debate was fanning racist rhetoric and being used for political gain. The health minister said France's secular values did not mean a rejection of religion.

“We have to wage a determined fight against radical Islam, against these religious symbols which are filtering into public
spaces,” Valls said in an interview on BFM-TV.

Reiterating his stance on the issue, he said: “For me the burkini is a symbol of the enslavement of women.”

Ban suspended

Meanwhile, several mayors in southeast France on Friday said they would maintain their bans on the Islamic burkini swimsuit despite a ruling by France’s highest administrative court to suspend the measures.

A top French court suspended the ban on the burkini swimsuits that has angered Muslims, feminists and civil liberties campaigners.

The ruling by the Council of State relates to the Mediterranean resort of Villeneuve-Loubet, one of more than a dozen French towns that have imposed such bans.

But town hall authorities in Nice said the mayor would continue to fine women wearing burkinis while the mayor of nearby Frejus, David Rachline, told AFP that “the Frejus order is still valid.”

The burkini ban has shone a light on secular France’s long-standing difficulties integrating its Muslim population and dealing with the aftermath of a series of Islamist attacks.

(With AP, AFP and Reuters)

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:59 - GMT 10:59
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