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Bikini beating furore shows tension in France

Oliver Gee · 27 Jul 2015, 13:17

Published: 27 Jul 2015 13:17 GMT+02:00
Updated: 27 Jul 2015 13:17 GMT+02:00

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On Sunday the French press reported the sickening tale of a 21-year-old woman who was beaten up by a gang of five women at the Parc Léo Lagrange in Reims, northern France. 
The attack, carried out by women aged between 16 and 24, was apparently motivated by the woman's choice of attire -- a bikini, which she was wearing as she soaked up the summer sun.
As the gang approached the sunbather one of them is said to have yelled out "Go and get dressed, it's not summer", reported the L'Union newspaper.
When she refused, the argument escalated into violence and the woman was kicked and punched by a number of the gang.
She managed to escape more serious injuries after it was broken up by members of the public.
News of the young woman being assaulted by others would perhaps normally not have spread beyond those in the park but it was then suggested the attackers were Muslims and had been acting as some kind religious police. 
On Sunday, four days after the actual attack, social media in strictly secular France erupted with anger and anti-racism groups were calling on the public to protest.
The hashtag #jeportemonmaillotauparc (I wear my swimsuit in the park) topped the trending pages on Sunday afternoon. 
Many tweeters accepted the early reports that the attackers were Muslim, even though the religions and ethnicities of both the attackers and victim remain unconfirmed. 
Regardless, anti-racism organisation SOS Racisme urged tweeters to share the hashtag, together with pictures of themselves at the park in their own swimsuits.
There was also a protest at the park the same day, although rain may help explain why only about a dozen people showed up.
Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe even chimed in on Twitter, saying that "freedom for women is not negotiable". 
Others, such as the tweeter below, questioned why a Saudi king is allowed to privatize an entire beach in France while bikini-clad women can't even go to parks. 
But were the attackers really the 'religious police'?
It was local French newspaper L'Union which initially reported that the bikini was the source of the aggression, with all women involved allegedly getting into a shouting match about the "immoral" exposure of skin.
That lead to other coverage in the national French media and led to the outrage on Twitter.
But the reaction from authorites since then suggests the press and the tweeters jumped to the wrong conclusion.
On Sunday authorities moved to play down the role of religion in the dispute just as far-right bloggers were trying to suggest the incident revealed the threat of Islam to French values.
Reims Mayor Arnaud Robinet was the first to say that people had to be "careful not to jump to conclusions".
"All the same, I can understand why people have assumed that this attack had religious motives. If that turns out to be the case, it is a very serious incident," he told the L'Union newspaper. 
He called for people to allow judicial authorities and police do their work and to not get involved. 
Story continues below…
Then it emerged one of the attackers apparently took to Facebook on Sunday to rubbish rumours they were they were some kind of "religious police". 
And prosecutors in Reims have also issued a statement saying that neither the victim nor the attackers had suggested religion provoked the fracas when they were questioned by police.
They speedy statement from prosecutors to try to dispel the rumours swirling around the attack is perhaps unsurprising in a country where where tensions between the Muslim community and far-right groups have grown since the Paris terror attacks in January.
After Islamic extremists killed 17 people, most of them workers at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of Muhammed, cracks appeared to open up in France's "national unity" with reports of a huge rise in Islamophobic acts of abuse and violence.
For their part, many Muslims also condemned the magazine for its Muhammed front cover and refused to feel part of the "Je Suis Charlie" slogan that became the rallying call for the French in the aftermath of the attacks.
The question of the role of Islam in French culture has never been more prominent as now and those on the far right and even centre right have been only too eager to play on the public's concerns.
This atmosphere may explain why everyone was so quick to jump to conclusions at the weekend.
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