France is famous for allowing women the freedom to shed their bikini tops when sunbathing. It is seen as such a right that the interior minister tweeted his support of it two summers ago. But now the country’s highest administrative court has decided that there are limits to the liberté women enjoy when it comes to their swimming attire: They must not cover too much.
The ruling involved a swimsuit known as the “burkini,” which covers women from head to toe, leaving only the face, hands and feet visible. In issuing its ruling, the Council of State overturned a measure approved in May by the city council of Grenoble to allow the burkini in public pools. The government challenged the move, saying it contravened the controversial “separatism law” that was passed in 2021 to combat Islamist extremism. And in issuing its decision, the Council of State said that allowing the burkini violated “the principle of government neutrality toward religion.” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin called the ruling “a victory for our separatism law, for secularism and, above all, for the Republic.”
The significance of the ruling extends well beyond swimming pools. It’s the latest salvo in an ongoing debate about culture and religion, in a country that prides itself as being secular and colorblind while struggling amid growing multiculturalism.
A Muslim symbol — and questions about “identity”
Municipal pools in France have strict dress codes for hygienic reasons. Caps are required, and men must wear tightfitting trunks to prevent them from wearing their street shorts in the pool. The burkini, though, has become more than simply a swimwear choice. It has become a symbol — specifically, a Muslim symbol — that opponents say flies in the face of France’s particular version of secularism, which holds that the nation is entirely blind to religious differences.
“The identity question isn’t new,” said Elyamine Settoul, associate lecturer in political science at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. Shortly after becoming president in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy established the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Codevelopment, which became known as the Ministry of National Identity. The project was accompanied by a nationwide debate about what it means to be French, which Sarkozy defined as adhering “to a form of civilization, to values and customs.” Sarkozy was accused of xenophobia, and the ministry was abolished in 2010, but the underlying point — that immigrants, and specifically non-European immigrants, should live according to French tradition — continues to be a hot-button issue.
“The project showed that there is real tension around the identity question in France,” Settoul said.
Sarkozy also made it illegal for women to wear niqab, which covers a woman’s face and body, in public.
France has forbidden the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public institutions such as schools, libraries and government buildings since 2004, meaning that headscarves and yarmulkes are prohibited but small religious motifs, such as crosses, stars of David or the crescent and star, are not. In 2019, after a far-right politician berated a mother wearing the veil while accompanying her child on a school trip, that ban was extended to anyone supervising school trips. While in principle the law prohibits conspicuous symbols from any religion, in practice it is the hijab and other forms of Islamic dress that come under fire in the vast majority of cases.
When a nation “doesn’t see difference”
The real issue, observers say, is not the hijab or other Islamic signifiers, but a discomfort among many in France with their nation’s growing multiculturalism. Increasingly, Muslims in France are native-born and, unlike their parents or grandparents who immigrated from former French colonies in North Africa and worked to fit into their new homeland, these multiethnic younger generations see themselves as fully French and proudly display their North African Maghrebi roots. They have forged something new, a fusion of North African and French cultures that is seeping into the mainstream. Many of them practice a modernized version of Islam that fits with their Western lifestyles. The burkini is part of that movement. It is not, as is commonly thought in France, a religiously conservative garment. It is too form-fitting, and no traditionalist Muslim woman would swim in mixed company to begin with.
Such open embrace of a nontraditional French religion and culture has proved a challenge to long-held ideas of what secularism and assimilation mean in this country. “It’s not the same as what is practiced elsewhere,” said Haoues Seniguer, a political science researcher and lecturer at Sciences Po Lyon. “It’s linked to history and to the idea of French exceptionalism. At its core, it’s a generous idea, ‘we don’t pay attention to differences,’ but today we are in a multicultural society, and we can’t operate according to the same logic.”
The demographics have changed, too. Whereas earlier generations of North African immigrants were largely working-class, their children and grandchildren are increasingly middle-class and more visible, and increasing numbers of them — such as soccer player Karim Benzema and musician DJ Snake — have gained international renown. Because of discrimination against Muslims in the workplace, many have been given first names that are commonplace both in the Arab-speaking world and in Europe, Seniguer noted. Rayyan and Ines are popular examples.
“The indicators show a structural integration … but it’s as though there is a disconnect between the social reality and the manner in which a part of the French population perceive their country,” he said, explaining that many still consider France to be a white nation when, in reality, it is one of the most diverse countries in Europe and has the largest Muslim population on the continent. While France doesn’t collect data on religious adherence, a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center estimated that there were 5,720,000 Muslims living in France at that time, or 8.8 percent of the population. That poses a particular problem in a country that officially doesn’t see difference, Seniguer said: “How do you give rights and integrate diversity in public policy?”
A “French Islam”
So far, the approach has been to insist on conformity to the French mold. To that end, in 2016 then-President François Hollande formed the Foundation for Islam in France and called for the creation of a “French Islam.” The announcement came after a painful period of terror attacks in France carried out by Islamist extremists, many of whom were French nationals. The goal of the foundation was to combat Islamist radicalism and to improve relations between the Muslim community and the state.
“Our work is enormous,” conceded Ghaleb Bencheikh, the foundation’s president, explaining that his organization concentrates its efforts on education, culture and social media, going into prisons, meeting with youth and trying to persuade them that there is no contradiction between being French and being Muslim. “Young Muslims felt tension around their identity. They thought of their identity as being solely a religious issue.”
Delineating a French version of Islam is, he said, a natural thing to do.
“If there is one Abrahamic religion that is flexible and easy, it is Islam,” Bencheikh said. “It adapts.” Muslim women in India wear saris, he noted, and in Africa they wear the boubou. “In France, they will live like the French,” he said. “They can be French and Muslim. There are different cultures in the world of Islam. … There is no problem with adaptation.”
The efforts to create a “French Islam” are being carried out on several levels. Traditionally, imams in France come from abroad and their salaries are paid by foreign governments, meaning that they are not only unfamiliar with French laws and customs but often don’t even speak French. In 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron said the government would gradually phase out the “consular Islam system,” in which imams are sent from foreign countries.
There are now multiple programs to train imams in France. And last year, the French Council of the Muslim Faith agreed to a charter of principles defining an “Islam of France” that was the result of months of negotiations between the government and representatives of the Muslim community. The charter is meant to ensure that Islam, as it is taught and practiced in France, is aligned with the values of the French Republic. Signatories promised not to promote “political Islam.”
The issue isn’t solely a French one. Foreign countries fund mosques and imams throughout Europe. In 2020, European Council President Charles Michel called for the creation of a European institute to train imams so that a “message of tolerance and openness can be conveyed at the European level.” Austria banned foreign funding of mosques in 2015 and since the beginning of 2021 has required all imams to be registered. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden all have educational programs for imams.
The focus on conformity to French mores is misplaced, in Settoul’s view. The idea that “if we can build a French Islam we will prevent terrorism, it’s a false premise,” he said. Rigorous forms of the religion, such as Salafism, are not inherently dangerous. “You can be very rigorous and against violence,” he said. “There is a confusion between moral order and legal order.”
Settoul holds that the government should stay out of the manner in which religion is observed — and what adherents wear — and limit its attention to orders of law. “It’s not for France to decide what kind of Islam we should practice,” he said. “The only legitimate demand is that it respects the law and secularism. For the rest, it’s up to [Muslims] to decide what Islam they want.”
That differs by generation, said Hakim El Karoui, an expert on Islam in France who is senior fellow at the Institute Montaigne and the author of “Islam, a French Religion,” a fact that is being overlooked in the government’s initiatives.
“There are two Islams, one for the parents and one for the children,” he said. The government efforts address the former but have little effect on the latter. “The young, they are not influenced by imams,” he said. “They are influenced by the Western world and social media.” Focusing on imams who lead mosques in France does nothing to influence French youth who get their version of Islam online from internet imams such as Salafi preacher Rachid Eljay, whose Facebook page has a following of 2.5 million people.
“The point is not to try to have French imams, the point is to have young French Muslim influencers,” El Karoui said. “The young people represent a French Islam. It’s a new one,” one in which adherents are not trying to conform to handed-down rules but instead decide for themselves what they are allowed to do while still living the kinds of lives they see on social media.
“The burkini is a good example of this new mix, it’s conservative and modern,” El Karoui said. “It’s a symbol of the new generation and this new mix of Western conservative Islam and identarian Islam. It’s a way to say, ‘This is my identity,’ like the veil.”
That’s why bans are pointless, in El Karoui’s view. “You will never ban the people,” he said. “Young people are all looking for their identity.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.