Gavin Mortimer

France’s burkini row returns

France's burkini row returns
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Bad weather swept across southern France over the May Day holiday but summer is just around the corner and with it will come the burkini. Last week, a call was issued to burkini-wearers to gather at the Cannes film festival later this month, with the organiser saying it will be the perfect moment 'to celebrate together this freedom in the town that was the first to ban the burkini'.

The burkini brouhaha of last August made headlines around the world but it soon blew over like a summer storm. A handful of beaches on the Cote d'Azur banned young women from wearing the Islamic swimsuit, citing concerns over public disorder, understandable given that the previous month Islamists had run down 86 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice and slit the throat of an 85-year-old priest in his Normandy church. Human Rights Groups and Islamic organisations contested the ban and France's supreme court found in their favour. No sooner had they done so than the summer ended and the burkini disappeared from the beach.

But it will be back this summer and once more it will present a challenge for the authorities. In less than a week there will be a new president in the Élysée Palace but there remains on the Cote d'Azur the same fear and suspicion of Islam. Look at the map of how France voted in the first round of the election: from Perpignan to Nice, the coastline was Marine Blue, and the National Front leader doesn't much care for the burkini. 'It's a question of the soul of France', said Le Pen last August when the controversy erupted. 'France doesn't encase a woman's body, France doesn't hide away half of the population under the spurious and odious pretext that the other half fears temptation'.

The burkini has become an emotive symbol of the struggle to defend the French concept of secularism. Its defenders say it is harmless beachwear, it's detractors say it is the first step in a cleverly concocted campaign to force mainstream Muslim society to make a choice: Republican values or Islamic ones.

Allow the burkini on the grounds of modesty, they argue, and what will be next? Separate swimming pools? Segregated P.E classes in schools? Muslim-only beaches? If that sounds preposterous, then remember that last summer in Corsica there was a violent altercation when a Muslim family tried to privatise a beach to safeguard their women's modesty. Le Pen knows that she's onto a winner whenever she mentions the burkini because of the word's visual power. As she said in March this year: 'France is not the burkini on the beach, France is Brigitte Bardot'.

Islam's place in French society will doubtless be a topic of conversation on Wednesday when Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron clash in a televised debate. In a sign of how bitterly divisive the election campaign has become Macron has spent the last few days visiting Holocaust memorial sites and remembering the Muslim victims of far-right brutality, what is being described by the French media as his attempt to 're-demonise' the National Front.

Le Pen, for her part, has portrayed her rival as too close to Islam for his own good, and last week she charged Macron as 'being in the hands' of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, which is alleged to have links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and who have called on their members to vote for the centrist candidate.

During the televised presidential debate in March, one of the few flashpoints was when Le Pen accused Macron of being 'in favour of the burkini'. That elicited a rare flash of anger from Macron. 'Don’t put words in my mouth', he snapped. 'I don’t need the talent of a views on the burkini have nothing to do with secularism, it is to do with public order. I want to avoid any public order troubles which divide society'.

Macron has indeed stated that a ban 'was justifiable' if public order was threatened, adding that 'this garment is contrary to the idea that we have of civility and equality between men and women'. However, in the same interview Macron said that 'it's indispensable to defend individual liberty if some want to dress in a certain way'.

This contradictory position will encourage Islamists and, on the assumption that Macron is the next president of France, they will test his authority with the burkini and other ostentatious displays of Islamic apparel.

There weren't any in sight last Thursday when Macron visited Sarcelles, a suburb of northern Paris that suffered violent anti-Semitic riots in 2014 during a pro-Palestinian demonstration. On a meet-and-greet with the locals, the En Marche! leader had a kickabout with some kids and described Saracelles 'as a wonderful lesson of what France is'. Contrasting his position with what he called the National Front's xenophobia, Macron said: 'I want a reconciled France, a unified France. France, it's not hatred of one another, it's not the rejection of one another'.

An admirable sentiment but one not shared within the 120 Salafist mosques in France, which Le Pen has vowed to shut down if elected. They reject Republican values in their entirety and they are aware of the cultural importance of the beach to the French, hence their determination to turn it into an ideological battleground.

Even if, as expected, Le Pen loses the election on Sunday the 7.7 million people who voted for her in the first round will emerge emboldened from the presidential campaign. They share their leader's conviction that the burkini represents a grave challenge to Republican values, and while they didn't rise to the provocation last summer, it might not be the case this year as they also look to put the new government's authority to the test.

The potential for confrontation is ominous, says Professor Gilles Kepel, France's leading expert on Islam, whose latest book, The Fracture, outlines how the Islamists' objective is to divide French society by cultivating a sense of victimhood among Muslims. Describing the burkini furore as 'obscene', coming so soon after the slaughter in Nice, Keppel nonetheless says that the Islamists' cleverly-orchestrated strategy to deflect the world's attention from the terrorist attacks succeeded.

In his conclusion Keppel had a warning for the new president: 'This fracture threatens us to the core of our society', he wrote. 'In the five years to come France will be confronted, as rarely before in its history, with profound social and cultural crises [and] we're waiting for the political vision that will be able to withstand the temptation to fracture'.

The two presidential candidates' awareness of the divisions within French Society is reflected in their campaign slogans. 'France together!' is the rallying cry of Macron, while Le Pen's is more forceful: 'Choose France'. By that she means choose France over the EU and choose French values over Islamic values.