France’s BurkiniGate – It’s About More Than Racism

Burkinigate in Frankreich

BurkiniGate – It’s About More Than Racism

Since the middle of August, it’s been a hot topic in the international media: the burkini ban on French beaches. Seldom have I read so many untruths about my native country. Time to shed some light from my perspective on my fellow countrymen and women: the French have been unsettled by terrorism and are in search of orientation in a country where religion has been a private matter for over a century.

Why am I speaking out today?

I am French, born and raised in France. I went to school and university there. At the age of 20, I moved with my friend in Germany and made it my permanent home. Since 2010, I’ve held German citizenship. To round out the story, I moved to the USA in 2013 and now live and work in Washington, the American capital.

Probably because I belong a little to all these places, I read not only the German newspapers (Der Spiegel and Handelsblatt) but also the French (Le Monde and Les Echos) and English (The Economist, Washington Post and New York Times). I also follow the news on Twitter. I don’t watch the news on TV, although I listen to it on the radio in the evenings.

What I’m trying to say is that my view on the news comes from far more than a single source.

BurkiniGate – The Facts

A burkini is a “Muslim bikini”. It looks very similar to the neoprene suits worn by divers, only a little more fashionable and feminine. Practicing female Muslims wear it on the beach when they wish to swim. Only their faces and feet are left uncovered.

On 28th July, the Mayor of Cannes – a town world-famous for its annual film festival – banned burkinis from the beach. Other towns in the South of France followed suit.

On 26th August, France’s highest court overturned the burkini ban.

The story first hit the international media in mid-August. Everything I’ve read about France since then can be summed up as follows: with the burkini ban, France is promoting segregation, not integration.

But it’s not that simple.

First, There Is The Feminist Point Of View

The feminists aren’t scared to make their voices heard – and many of them say the burkini is a prison for women, one that should be abolished at the earliest opportunity.

The French philosopher and professor Elisabeth Badinter put it in a nutshell: full body coverings are not a religious command, but a tradition from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Why, then, should they be allowed to arouse mistrust and fear in a democratic country that promotes equality for women?

Then, There Are The Feelings of Insecurity Resulting From Terrorist Attacks.

Charlie Hebdo, Le Bataclan, Nice: three attacks carried out by radicalized Muslims.

As a result, many French people now think that Muslims are to blame for everything. “They” let them into the country and “they” should now expel them again.

The right-wing populist party Front National has been the first to benefit from this shift in attitude. Since then its rates of approval rose significantly.

6 to 9 million Muslims now call France home. The exact number is uncertain, since it is prohibited to record ethnic and religious affiliation as part of an official census. However, if we consider that France has 66 million inhabitants, 6 – 9 million Muslims represents 9 – 13% of the population.

In 2015, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front National, told a Russian newspaper that France was home to 15 to 20 million Muslims. Many French agreed: in a 2014 survey for a British newspaper, French respondents estimated the proportion of Muslims at 31% of the country’s population!

Others attempt to proceed more rationally: not all Muslims are terrorists. But how should we tell the “good” Muslims from the ill-intentioned and dangerous ones, they ask, and how do we avoid lumping them all together?

BurkiniGate – A Symbol For Lost Orientation In A Secular State

Like many French people, I have been unsettled by the terrorist attacks of the past two years and have sought for something to hold onto.

On the one hand, one can find orientation in the strict separation of state and religion that has existed in France since 1905. Secularism is even written into the constitution. On the other hand, the interpretation of secularism is a much-disputed topic that continues to feature heavily in national political discourse.

Let’s take an example. My mother went to a Catholic school; her teachers were nuns. My father and I went to public schools. In the late 80s, when I was still a student, the question was raised of whether girls should be allowed to wear a headscarf in the school buildings. The law of 1905 did not provide an answer.

For my father and me, it was self-evident that headscarves and kippas had no place in public institutions of education, since religion is a private matter. Those who disagreed could still choose to attend a Catholic, Jewish or Muslim school instead.

My mother, likewise, did not wish to see head coverings in schools. To hang a crucifix on the wall is also forbidden in French schools and public buildings. 

In 2004, the first ever law banning visible symbols of faith in schools was passed by a majority in parliament. In other words: veils, headscarves and kippas are a no no, while crosses worn under a sweater are allowed.

Veils, headscarves and kippas are a no no in French schools burkinigate  Tweet This!

It had been a long time since I’d lived in France, and I found this law confusing. Headscarves were banned in schools, but only for the students. Mothers could still come to parents’ evening wearing a scarf. How so?

Headscarves were banned in schools, but not in universities. Why?

In 2011, France banned the wearing of full-body coverings. But the wearing of burkinis is now allowed…why?

63% of French respondents to a 2016 survey said that Islam is too visible in France and has too much influence.

With the beach burkini ban, French people felt once again a clear sense of French identity.

A Final Word

So far, I haven’t been sure what to think of the burkini ban.

I consider myself to be liberal. 16 years ago, I hired my first au pair, a girl from Morocco. She put on a headscarf any time she left the house, including when she was out and about with my daughter. Today, I am not sure if I would be so open-minded.

Yesterday, my husband said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” We seldom share the same political opinion, but when he’s right, he’s right.

Bouchra, my Moroccan au pair now lives in Germany. Ten years ago, she gave up wearing the head scarf.

In Rome, as the Romans. Period.

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