May I interrupt, for a moment, the howls of anguish from those liberals in uproar at the news that authorities in France are banning burkinis on their beaches? I'd like to relate an incident that occurred earlier this month in France.
It involved my girlfriend, who was on her way from Paris to visit her grandmother in eastern France. An hour into her journey she pulled into a service station to fill up with petrol. On returning to her car she made a small sign of the cross as she slid into her seat. Navigating one's way on a French motorway during the height of summer can be a fraught experience, particularly for the nervous driver. Suddenly there was a violent thump on her window. She jumped with fright. A man stooped so his face was level with hers. 'Why do you make that sign?' he asked, menacingly. 'You don't make the sign of the cross in France.' The man then ran his eyes over my girlfriend's summer dress. 'And next time you go out,' he sneered, 'cover yourself up.' She was still in shock when she phoned moments later. Did you get his number plate? I asked. She hadn't, she'd been too bewildered. But she'd spotted the headscarved woman in the front passenger seat.
I have a fund of similar stories from female friends in France. There's the one who was insulted by two women in headscarves while out jogging because she had on a pair of shorts; the friend who no longer travels on the Paris metro after a certain hour because, as a Muslim, she's fed up with being insulted by men of her religion because she dares to wear a skirt and blouse; and the one who sold her baby's car seat through an ad in the local paper. The man met her asking price but refused to shake the hand of a woman.
Then there are the cases outside my immediate milieu. On the first day of Ramadan this year a Muslim waitress in a Nice bar was assaulted by two men. 'Shame on you for serving alcohol during Ramadan,' one of them screamed, as he attacked her. 'If I were God, I would have you hanged.' Last year in Reims a young woman sunbathing in a public park was set upon by a gang of teenage girls. They objected to her bikini, reported the newspapers, although the town's authorities insisted there was no 'religious' aspect to the attack. Few believed them.
That's because such incidents are becoming more common across France. There was a spate of similar confrontations last summer in Lyon, prompting Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a director for the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the largest governmental research organisation in the country, to explain: 'We're seeing the emergence of a police of mores who are principally targeting young women on the issue of modesty.'
This important point is blithely ignored by naive liberal writers, particularly those in Britain, who have little understanding of the extent of extremism in France, where 100 of the country's 2,5000 mosques are controlled by Salafists, the most puritanical Islamic ideology. The Salafists want all women covered, at all times, and the burkini is part of their strategy. It is a symbol of Islamic purity with a clear message: good Muslims wear the burkini, bad ones wear the bikini. Toleration of the burkini will only embolden France's 'police of mores' in their campaign of coercion, a point emphasised by Nicolas Sarkozy in an interview to be published in Friday's Le Figaro magazine. 'Wearing a burkini is a political act, it's militant, a provocation,' said Sarkozy, styling himself as the uncompromising centre-right candidate ahead of next year's Presidential elections. 'If we do not put an end to this, there is a risk that in 10 years, young Muslim girls who do not want to wear the veil or burkini will be stigmatised and peer-pressured.'
The Guardian and the Telegraph are among several British papers to have run articles in recent days shrilly denouncing the ban. The headline in the former was glibly entitled 'Five reasons to wear a burkini – and not just to annoy the French.' Thursday's Evening Standard draws a fatuous comparison between a burkini and a nun's habit with the writer wondering why Sister Marie isn't being forced 'to shed the wimple'.
Many British media organisations have reproduced the series of photographs of policemen on a Nice beach ordering a woman to remove what appears to be a burkini. The pictures - which some believe were staged - have now gone viral and the reaction on social media has been one of predictable childish hysteria. Of course the French authorities don't consider the burkini a terrorist threat but, as Sarkozy says, allowing it would 'suggest France appears weak'. Engaged as they are in a bloody struggle with homegrown Islamists , France must stay strong in the ideological war against the Salafists.
One wonders how the twitterati would have reacted had they been in Corsica a fortnight ago when a large Muslim family arrived on a beach. While the women bathed - not in burkinis, as originally reported, but in full Islamic dress - the men set about protecting their modesty by 'privatising the beach'. When a group of local teenagers refused to leave, they were viciously assaulted by three brothers.
Those Corsican youngsters were courageous in standing up to the swaggering threats of the Islamists, and similar bravery was shown earlier this year by a Muslim organisation called 'Women Without Veils. Based in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris with a reputation for Islamic extremism, 'Women Without Veils' published a statement on 8 March, International Women's Day, entitled 'The Veil; denier of liberty and equality'. In the statement they declared: 'We refuse to wear the veil because it represents a symbolic violence visible in a public space... the Islamists are formalising the inequality of the sexes in the family and social context at the expense of the fundamental values of the Republic.'
These women have a deeper understanding of the Republic than people like Herve Lavisse, a leader in The League of Human Rights, who in condemning the burkini ban on Côte d'Azur beaches, said: 'It is time for politicians in this region to calm their discriminatory ardour and defend the spirit of the Republic.' In banning the burkini France is defending the secular spirit of the Republic, and Lavisse and his ilk would see that if only they took their heads out of the sand.