Nationalism in Context: The Ominous Implications of France’s Burkini Ban
By Namrata Verghese
On August 24, 2016, a shocking photograph went viral on social media platforms, drawing millions of eyes across the globe to the rapidly-escalating nationalism and Islamophobia in France. The photograph depicts a woman on a beach in Nice, clad in an aqua “burkini,” a swimsuit that covers her whole body except for her face, hands, and feet. Rather than capturing typical beach frolic, however, this picture illustrates something much more ominous. The woman crouches on the beach, her knees digging into the sand, caught in the process of removing her burkini to appease the armed police officers that loom over her. These officers cornered the woman, who was lying on the beach innocuously, save for her blue headscarf. They then forced her to remove some of her clothing, in accordance with the Nice burkini ban. “The saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home,’ and some were applauding the police,” Mathilde Cousin, a witness to the scene, observed. “Her daughter was crying.”
The photograph elicited such widespread outrage that France’s Council of State, the country’s supreme administrative authority, weighed in within the week. Their decision categorically overturned the burkini ban, denouncing it by saying that the law “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs, and individual freedom.” However, the controversy drags on, as the xenophobic, reactionary political climate that created the law did not end with it. In fact, after the ruling, the French mayor of Sisco declared that he would maintain a local regulation banning burkinis, as “here, the tension is very, very, very strong.”
While Islamophobia has been on the rise worldwide, France’s history, identity, and political climate render it uniquely vulnerable to crises such as the burkini ban controversy. Laïcité, a strict form of secularism that frowns upon conspicuous demonstrations of religion, has formed the crux of France’s cultural identity since the country’s eighteenth-century Revolution. However, in modern France, this insistence on rigid secularism yields exacerbated racial and religious tensions, as it is viewed as an attempt to forcibly assimilate minorities. Deepening the demographic divide, France passed a law in 2004 to ban visible religious symbols and clothing in public schools that led French Muslims to feel targeted and persecuted⎯ as Muslim forms of religious expression, such as headscarves, are typically much more conspicuous than those of other faiths. The demand for private Muslim schools increased exponentially because of this, and a form of self-imposed segregation appeared to sweep the European nation. Moreover, recent terror attacks—most prominently, the Charlie Hebdo massacre—have rendered public opinion on religion, specifically Islam, overwhelmingly negative.
In the midst of the burkini ban outcry, French National Front leader and current leading presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, has received harsh criticism for her recent proposal to ban all conspicuous religious clothing in public, not just in schools, in order to fight “political Islam.” This blatantly Islamophobic statement from a presidential hopeful, and promising candidate, suggests that France’s liberalism is starting to blur with nationalism—to the point where a law created to preserve religious equality has been harnessed to persecute a specific, historically oppressed religious minority. Furthermore, the rapid traction Le Pen’s campaign has gained—polling suggests that she will likely get about twenty-six percent of the vote in the presidential election next April—epitomizes the drastic shift in French politics to emphasize nationalism and xenophobia.
Notably, it wasn’t too long ago that Le Pen’s party, the National Front, was dismissed as a fringe movement of xenophobes and fascists. France may be just a piece in the larger puzzle of the global shift to the right, but Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, Islamophobic rhetoric shares uncanny similarities with another, perhaps more familiar, presidential hopeful: Donald Trump. Trump has famously called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Both candidates have capitalized on the widespread anxiety induced by radical terrorist groups to spew incendiary messages of hate and hostility towards Muslims, and both have benefitted from the global movement to close borders and ramp up nationalistic sentiment. While current polling suggests that Trump’s chances at the White House are minimal, the following he has built around him and the misogynistic, xenophobic opinions he has validated throughout his campaign seem to support his place as a symbol of the rapid-fire spread of worldwide right-wing extremism. If France’s recent troubles seem bizarre to Americans now, we should take heed. If we are not careful, if we do not rally against the international slide to the right of the political spectrum, the cherished freedoms at the core of our democracy may be compromised.