- August 25, 2016
Anyone who has travelled in France this summer will have found it difficult to ignore the state of emergency with which the French state has responded to Daesh’s savage provocations. In Banyuls-sur-Mer, we found the main road by the beach guarded by armed soldiers, presumably mindful of a repeat of the attack on Tunisia last year. In Chartres, we watched a band whose members were mostly in their 60s or 70s joyously celebrating the city’s summer fete in glorious French style, while a detachment of soldiers, some of whom looked as if they were barely out of school, guarded the entrances to the square where their gig was taking place.
It was poignant, funny and moving to watch these pensioners sashaying their way to the stage to the strains of La Compagnie Créole’s ‘C’est Bon Pour Le Moral’ while the crowd sang along from printed out lyrics.
Age could not wither these dancers, because even in the midst of so much gloom and mayhem, the French will not easily surrender their right to celebrate the summer, even if soldiers are now needed to ensure that some ‘radicalized’ murderer will not try to kill them.
The blundering government of Francois Hollande is desperate to demonstrate to the French public that it can provide security, and the French public is right to demand such reassurances – even if it is difficult to believe that any amount of soldiers can provide full protection against random acts of homicide that can take place anywhere and at any time.
The French government knows that it can’t prevent such attacks. No democracy can, without going onto an explicitly war footing. On the one hand these armed patrols are a form of ‘security theatre’, designed to give the reassuring appearance of security. And even if we may not like to see armed soldiers in the streets, it’s difficult to argue that they aren’t necessary in the current climate.
All that is very different from what has been taking place on French beaches since Nice, Cannes and some fifteen other towns announced last week that women would not be allowed to wear the full-body swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’ on the beach and that those who did would be fined.
Yesterday these measures reached a pitch of hysterical idiocy when armed police surrounded a Muslim woman on a beach in Nice and ordered her to take off the offending garment, while scowling French holidaymakers looked on.
Why has this happened? What makes these women so dangerous? The massacres and murders of the last two years are obviously part of the explanation – but only in the sense that they have acted as a catalyst for state-enforced bigotry that is slippery and dishonest in its justifications, and meaningless from the point of view of security. The Cannes ordinance insists that
“Beach attire that ostentatiously displays a religious affiliation, while France and places of worship are the target of terrorist acts, is likely to create risks to public order.”
What kind of risks? According to the mayor of Cannes, Thierry Migoule:
“If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order…It is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision. The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion.”
So Migoule is protecting Muslim women from discrimination by punishing them for wearing clothing that might make them objects of discrimination? Not exactly. Migoule has also told Agence France-Presse that the burkini is an “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us” .
Ah ha. So women who wear the burkini are declaring their allegiance to Daesh then?
There is not much evidence, really none at all in fact, to suggest that women in Daesh-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq are flocking to the beaches dressed in their burkini ‘uniforms’. So it doesn’t seem very likely that Muslim women who wear burkinis in France are declaring their allegiance to the Caliphate.
Nor is there any evidence that women wearing the burkini have disrupted public order, though these ordinances certainly increase that possibility.
The Nice town council has tweaked its banning ordinance slightly differently, declaring that the burkini “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” So for Cannes, the burkini symbolizes “extremist Islamism”; for Nice it’s “adherence to a religion”. And now Prime Minister Manuel Valls has joined in, declaring the burkini to be a symbol of the “enslavement of women” which is “not compatible with the values of the French Republic.”
Valls has supported the burkini ban on the grounds that “In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself.” Naturally Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to get into the act and is using the burkini to smooth the path of a political comeback, by appealing to Front National voters without actually joining the party.
Sarkozy has played this game before. Like Valls, he sees the burkini as a “provocation” since “we don’t imprison women behind fabric.”
How noble of ‘us’ that we don’t do that. So are the cops who humiliate a harmless Muslim woman on a beach defending France from a threat or are they liberating her, or perhaps performing both acts at the same time?
We don’t really know, and the politicians who advocate such actions probably don’t really know either. They do know they can’t stop Daesh. But they will, it seems, declare burkini-wearing women to be a threat to public order, the identity of French society, and a hollowed-out notion of laicité that is really only interested in what Muslims do – or what they’re perceived to be doing.
So these measures will do nothing to make the French public more secure. They will not ‘liberate’ Muslim women and they are not intended to. They will not promote ‘cohesion’ and ‘ assimilation’, but they will generate anger, humiliation, bitterness and alienation.
All this may give some satisfaction to the bigots and racists.
By going down this route, France’s politicians have made a major blunder. In thoughtlessly conflating very different notions of culture, religion and security, they threaten to institutionalize anti-Muslim bigotry, even as they unleash an overbearing authoritarianism which threatens to make France look ridiculous, two-faced,cowardly and stupid.
In instrumentalising feminism to justify this petty persecution, they only disgrace themselves still further.
We can only wait now for politicians like Valls and Sarkozy to order that all Muslim women should be forced to go topless and wear thongs to prove that they aren’t ‘imprisoned’ and demonstrate their commitment to laicité.
It’s up to French society to reach into its better traditions and bring this nonsense to an end, the sooner the better.
So come on France, give yourself a shake now and pull yourself together, and please try to remember that you have more important things to worry about these days than what Muslim women are wearing on the beach.
Featured image: Giorgio Montersino. Wikimedia Commons.