The latest French fashion obsession isn’t on display on Paris runways but on the beach towels of Muslim women on the Riviera. The real craze, however, has nothing to do with apparel choices, and arguably little to do with the women themselves.
Following July’s deadly attack in Nice, a wave of xenophobia has inspired 30 coastal districts to ban the burkini, a full-body swimsuit resembling a wetsuit-niqab-ninja hybrid, intended to help women enjoy sun and surf while abiding by “modest” dress codes. Suddenly what started as a pragmatic sportswear option has been painted as a Muslim extremist “provocation.”
Last Friday, an administrative court effectively suspended the Burkini ban as an infringement on personal rights. However, opportunistic local politicians continue to grandstand in defiance, capitalizing on a xenophobic far-right populist surge. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed he would try to impose a constitutional nationwide ban on burkinis, suggesting that the essence of French secular law was threatened by a few women sunning in pastel unitards.
The rash of burkini backlash is fueled by the ingrained French principle of laïcité, a distinct concept of militant civic secularism. This runs counter to the principle underlying “immigrant integration” policies: multiculturalism, inclusive of Islam. The murder of staff at the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo and other assaults at iconic cultural spaces like a Paris rock concert have stoked a panicked sense that French national identity is under attack. But the byproduct of the ethnic and religious fissures are not, as the far-right suggests, Muslim“extremism,” which is present in a negligible sliver of French society. Rather, the alienation of France’s Muslim minority is expressed in social despair, class and housing segregation, and, occasionally, the explosive language of a riot.