After banning the hijab in schools and the burka in public, it was only a matter of time before France trained its sights on the burkini. The French beach, after all, is sacred ground, where the female form is religiously flaunted and fawned upon. It's no coincidence that the world first discovered Brigitte Bardot sprawled out on le sable in a movie called And God Created Woman.
So perhaps nothing constitutes more of an affront to the French way of life than the sight of a burkini on the Riviera. Only in France would the adoption of municipal ordinances fining women for wearing too much, rather than too little, on public beaches seem completely free of irony.
As discriminatory, or ridiculous, as the proliferation of municipal bans on the head-to-ankle swim suit worn by some Muslim women might seem, such ordinances are entirely in keeping with the dominant theme of current French politics. Preserving the French identity, as defined by the majority, has overtaken everything else in the runup to next spring's national elections.
This goes hand-in-hand, of course, with the strengthening of security measures aimed at combating terrorism in the wake of recent attacks, including the Bastille Day slaughter in Nice, which last week joined Cannes in announcing its own burkini ban. Both the anti-terrorism measures and moves to ban religious symbols in public involve the suppression of fundamental rights, putting France on a collision course with the very values that once made it a model for the world. Or so it would seem from the outside.
This is France, remember, where political debates are so dizzyingly deep that those unschooled in the local dialectic are usually out of their league trying to keep up. At the core of the burkini bans is the concept of la contre-société, or counter-society, that has obsessed the French since the Revolution, often with bloody results.
Counter-societies – groups within France that defy the traditional norms of French society – are seen as threats to the republican notions of liberty, equality and secularism. Left unchecked, they endanger the very existence of the Republic.
This is the theme of author Michel Houellebecq's 2015 novel Submission, in which a Muslim wins the 2022 French presidential election and imposes Islamic law. No group currently faces counter-society accusations more than France's Muslim population, the largest in Europe. Its religious practices and sartorial distinctiveness are seen by many intellectuals not as private matters but as a rebuke to French values that must not stand lest they metastasize into something even more dangerous.
"In France, a societal norm requires discretion in the public expression of that which sets one apart, [including] political and religious convictions," Moroccan-born French sociologist Philippe d'Iribarne wrote in Le Monde in defence of the burkini bans. "All these forms of separation feed the construction of a kind of counter-society, rebelling against the West and its values, providing favourable ground among the most persuaded for the hatching of terrorist vocations."
In an interview with a newspaper in Marseille, where Muslims make up a quarter of the population, Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to refute suggestions that the burkini constitutes a mere fashion choice. Rather, "it is the translation of a political project, a counter-society, founded on the enslavement of women … French Muslims are being held hostage by these groups, these associations and these individuals who want them to believe that the Republic and Islam are incompatible. They distort the debate and favour confrontation."
It's true that France has had to deal with more than its share of radical imams, dozens of whom have been deported in recent months for preaching jihad or hate. But there is plenty of blame to go around in the confrontation department and Mr. Valls deserves his share of it, too. Few politicians can outdo Marine Le Pen, however. The National Front Leader has climbed the opinion polls with venomous attacks on the country's Muslims. "France does not hide half of its population on the fallacious and odious pretext that the other half would fear temptation," she wrote on her blog, warning that the burkini endangers France's very soul.
It should hardly come as a surprise that France's Muslims have their backs up. Even moderate Muslims resent their characterization as a counter-society, especially since the burkini bans target more-liberal Muslims. Only the latter would frequent a public beach where men and women commingle. But in its obsession with Islam, France has become oblivious to such ironies.