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OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

It's another hot summer in France and there's another predictable uproar over the Burkini. If France wants to take its place in a multicultural world then it must make room for all its citizens, writes civil liberties expert Rim-Sarah Alouane.

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women
Women visit a booth selling clothing during the 35th annual meeting of the French Muslim community on March 30th, 2018 at Le Bourget, north of Paris. (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

France’s compulsive obsession with the behaviour and dress of its Muslim citizens has taken on worrying proportions, and has turned over the years into a form of mass hysteria. The “burkini affair” is one of many examples.

The burkini is a two-piece full body swimsuit with sleeves, long legs and a headgear. This type of swimming-suit made of Lycra® leaves the face, feet and hands uncovered. It was invented in 2003 by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who wanted to develop sporting attire for Muslim women that would allow them to take part in sports activities while accommodating their religious beliefs. While the burkini was first designed for Muslim women, it has also been adopted by many non-Muslim women who wish to cover their bodies for various reasons.

The controversy escalated in 2016, when the French Council of State – France’s highest administrative court – overturned a series of local initiatives to ban the use of burkinis on public beaches. These bans were implemented in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment by local officials who argued that such attire disturbed the public order. The Council saw no such disturbance and argued that it was an infringement on constitutionally protected civil liberties. This, however, did not end the controversy.

READ ALSO: Why is France’s interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

In response, the political establishment from across the political spectrum tried to find legal loopholes to circumvent the ruling, turning their attention to municipal swimming pools where they could modify the rules governing public services.

A recent controversy involved the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who authorized the wearing of the burkini (as well as topless swimsuits) in municipal swimming pools, triggering an avalanche of criticism. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Mr Piolle of entertaining “communitarian provocation” and that authorizing the wearing of the burkini in public swimming pools was contrary to France’s values. Once again, French Muslim women found themselves stigmatised and targeted.

They were accused of being a conduit for Islamist extremism, separatism, patriarchy, and violating the principle of laïcité. This discourse, like so much before it, happened without inviting Muslim women themselves to be a part of the conversation.

Modern interpretations of Laïcité – France’s unique way of managing church-state relations – have become an ideological tool for political identity, a factor of division, and the exclusion of French Muslims from the societies in which they live. How did we get here?

The meaning of the term “laïcité” has become obscured by the fact that its interpretations are diverse and sometimes contradictory.

Its current usage betrays the very liberal intention of the 1905 law on “Separation of Church and State”, the ruling which forms the foundation of the principle. 

Laïcité once defined the territories in which the State is sovereign and religious belief is left at the door. It generates obligations for the state to remain neutral and guarantee the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of its citizens, within the limits of public order.

A significant misinterpretation of the 1905 law persists to this day. The law does not require religious belief or visible signs thereof to be kept in the home. However, politicians and pundits on a daily basis cite the law in their efforts to erase any religious visibility (especially Islam) in the public square.

Any attempt to show visible attributes of faith outside the home are deemed to be a threat to a commonly-held belief that France’s citizens should conform to an imaginary notion of what it means to be French. This very illiberal interpretation of laïcité and religious neutrality goes against the essence of the Law of 1905.

As France continues to mature as a country made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, vulnerable communities have begun to advocate for their rights to be treated as equals with their fellow French citizens without giving up their personal beliefs and customs.

Critics of the clothing choices of Muslim women have forgotten the fundamental freedoms of the Declaration of  the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, often seeking to free Muslim women from their religion. Even when Muslim women dare to defend their basic rights, they are often accused of being radicalised.

A good Muslim woman is a quiet invisible woman. The irony is that many Muslim women who wear their burkinis to swimming pools or wear headscarves during sports competitions actually go against rigorous interpretations of Islam. In order to justify burkini bans, politicians or commentators will often point to Muslim-majority countries who have similar prohibitions, as if authoritarian states were a role model for France to follow.

Muslim women are perceived as a threat because they shake France’s status quo. The illusion of France being a colour-blind nation has been broken. If France really believes that multicultural communities threaten the character of the country, it must not believe that its culture – one that the entire world looks up to – is actually that strong.

But if France is to take its place in a multicultural world, it needs to come to terms with how vulnerable communities fit within the notion of French identity and make room for all its citizens.

Rim-Sarah Alouane is a doctoral candidate and a researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole in France. Her research focuses on civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in Europe and North America. She tweets @rimsarah

Member comments

  1. Well said! I agree with you that all this controvery about burkinis and headscarves is based on a misunderstanding of the basic principles of the French republic.

  2. First and foremost it should remain the choice of the individual as to how they dress (within reason of course). If Muslim woman feel more comfortable wearing a burkini, do so (not all do and I know enough Tunisians to know that binikis are more to their taste than you would expect).

    Equally, for women and men of other cultures there should be choice allowed. All the swimming pools local to me require men to wear speedos…claiming it is more hygienic than swimming trunks. This is the only reason I no longer swim…as I refuse to wear the budgie smuggler – that to me is exposing far too much flesh and I am not comfortable wearing it.

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ENERGY

Macron: ‘Don’t panic’ over risk of power cuts in France this winter

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday called growing fears of winter electricity outages overblown, even as authorities prepare for possible targeted power cuts if consumption is not reduced and cold snaps strain the grid.

Macron: 'Don't panic' over risk of power cuts in France this winter

France’s network is under pressure as state power company EDF races to restart dozens of nuclear reactors taken down for maintenance or safety work that has proved more challenging than originally thought.

Reduced gas exports from Russia as it cuts supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Ukraine war have added to worries that gas-burning power plants might have to trim production.

“Stop it — we’re a major power, we have a great energy system, and we’re going to get through this winter despite the war,” Macron told reporters ahead of an EU/Balkans summit in Tirana, Albania.

“This debate is absurd, the role of the public authorities is not to breed fear,” he added.

OPINION France faces the real risk of power cuts this winter, and it cannot blame Putin

Macron had already urged people “not to panic” over the weekend, saying power cuts could be avoided if overall usage this winter was reduced by 10 percent.

But last week the government told local officials to begin preparing contingency plans in case targeted cuts were needed, possibly including closing schools until midday.

France is usually one of Europe’s largest electricity exporters thanks to its network of 56 nuclear reactors, which supply around 70 percent of its electricity needs.

But this winter it will be a major importer of power from Britain, Germany, Spain and other neighbouring countries, grid operator RTE said last week.

READ ALSO Schools, hospitals and trains – how France plans to deal with blackouts this winter

RTE’s chief Xavier Piechaczyk told Franceinfo radio that the risk of power cuts could not be excluded, “but it will essentially depend on the weather.”

Normally France’s 56 nuclear reactors can produce 61 gigawatts but with around half of the fleet offline, just 43 gigawatts are expected to be available by the end-January, he said.

And while France has the capacity to import up to 15 gigawatts, winter usage can surge to 90 gigawatts at peak hours, prompting the calls for energy “restraint” such as lowering thermostats and using washing machines and other appliances at night.

“Rule number one is that nothing is inevitable… Together we have the capacity to avoid any risk of cuts, no matter how the winter turns out,” government spokesman Olivier Veran told France 2 television on Tuesday.

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