‘Beach secularism’ fuels racism in France

From French politics being a source of tremendous inspiration three months ago, as millions joined the inventive and powerful battles against a vicious labour law, it has now become a source of anger and incomprehension around the world.

Photos of armed French police ordering a French Muslim woman to remove her clothing on a Mediterranean beach caused shock waves internationally, and several protest rallies against the bans on Muslim full body swimsuits (so-called burkinis) were held at French embassies. How did we get to this low point in France and what sort of fightback is likely?

Mayors of two dozen towns have now passed local by-laws restricting what clothes may be worn on the beach. They are aimed at Muslim women, though do not have the honesty to say so. Typical is the by-law in Cannes, which states that “access to the beach and the sea is forbidden to anyone not wearing proper clothing which respects good manners and secularism as well as hygiene and security rules”.

In a preamble, a confused political reason is given: “beachwear which shows ostentatiously religious affiliation, at a time when France and places of worship are being targeted by terrorists, risks causing disturbances of law and order, which must be prevented”.

Muslim women, whether on the beach or elsewhere, report increased discrimination in the Islamophobic atmosphere encouraged by these decrees. One Muslim woman interviewed in the press, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: “I won’t be going to the beach this year with my daughter. I haven’t got the strength to put up with the funny looks and mocking comments … I wear a hijab, and I’m a feminist, even if some people don’t like my version of feminism. What’s important is women’s freedom … to take clothes off, or to keep them on if we choose”.

The initial town decrees were dishonest and opportunistic. There have been no public order problems previously concerning any sort of swimwear. The aim, for rather pathetic right wing mayors, was to make the newspapers and shore up the Islamophobic vote.

In most countries, the manoeuvre would have remained a small-scale racist farce. Not here. There is a solid tradition on the left, including the revolutionary left, of refusing to fight against Islamophobia. The right and the neoliberal Socialist government can be sure that if they loudly attack Muslims, the left will be deeply divided and confused, and the measures will be effective in weakening the working class.

The practical political benefit, of course, goes to those who are less divided and confused on the issue: the fascists of Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

Islamophobes jockey for position

The Socialist Party prime minister Manuel Valls expressed his support for the mayors who had enacted the swimwear bans. “Faced with provocations, the republic must defend itself”, he insisted, and claimed these swimsuits were part of “the enslavement of women”.

Not to be outdone, right wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who, after hiding away for a couple of years is now preparing his campaign to be elected again in 2017, declared that if he wins, he will ban such swimwear with a new national law. Sarkozy is trying to rally the racist vote and distinguish himself from potential rival Alain Juppé, who normally is less Islamophobic (but who has not yet made a declaration on the burkini). “If we do not put a stop to it [the burkini]”, Sarkozy said, “the risk is that in 10 years’ time, young Muslim women who do not wear a veil or a burkini will be victimised and pressurised by their entourage.”

That Conservative and social-liberal politicians should use racism to divide and rule is unsurprising, but what is horrific about the present situation is the support for discrimination coming from forces much further left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, fiery orator and no doubt the best hope for a popular, combative class struggle candidate for president next year, denounced the “burkini” as “communitarianist instrumentalisation of women’s bodies” and as a “sign of militancy” and a “provocation”. He did not support the ban, but he repeated this nonsense about the meaning of the full body swimsuit.

Over recent years, Mélenchon has wavered on Islamophobia: sometimes insisting on the need to defend Muslims against prejudice, at other times making declarations about republican values under threat. The party he is a member of (the left reformist Parti de Gauche) denounced both the bans and the (in fact imaginary) fundamentalist campaign behind the swimwear. It claimed in a press release: “the burkini is the result of a Salafist religious offensive … [which] proposes a kind of clothing completely opposed to the ideas of emancipation and feminism which we defend”.

Many denunciations but little action

Fortunately, even in the establishment parties, Manuel Valls and the Islamophobes are not having it all their own way. The youth section of the Socialist Party expressed an opposite opinion to that of Valls, declaring: “Beach secularism is the latest thing that the racists and the Islamophobes have come up with to encourage hatred. We must not give in to this. Let us remember what secularism is, and what it is not!”

A number of Socialist Party mayors, senators and members of parliament have also shown opposition to the mayors’ racist decisions. And two of Valls’ own ministers have – politely – expressed their disagreement. The education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said: “[The bans] are problematic because there is a question of individual freedoms … and they let loose racist expression”. The minister of health, Marisol Touraine, went further:

“If you make out that bathing with a veil on or keeping your clothes on to go to the beach is a threat to public order or to the values of the republic, you’re forgetting that such values are precisely meant to allow people not to have to give up their own identity. You’re forgetting that secularism is not the rejection of religion: it is a guarantee of individual and collective freedom.”

Looking further left, there is some hope of a fight back against Islamophobia, but it is an uphill struggle. The tradition of blinkered secularism (or just hating believers) and the insidious remains of French colonial attitudes weigh heavily on the French left. There are no significant organisations that consistently fight Islamophobia. Any demonstration specifically against attacks on Muslims is 90 percent Muslim with a handful of non-Muslim left activists.

Determined work by a small number of comrades over the last 20 years has meant that tiny anti-Islamophobia minorities in left organisations have become significant minorities, but minorities nevertheless. This important progress has been helped by small but growing protest movements by Muslim groups or other single issue campaigns with a base among the victims of racism. This was shown, for example, in an important anti-racist march and meeting in the second half of 2015, which involved many Muslims and provoked polemical debates across the whole of the political spectrum.

One of the more important far left organisations, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), condemned the discrimination in a press release. In addition, since it was having a summer school (coincidentally) in a seaside town that has banned the burkini, it held a demonstration at the beach, which got into the press. Hopefully, there will be more actions in September, but there is no guarantee: the NPA remains divided on Islamophobia. Nevertheless, this demo, attended by half those present at the summer school, is an important step forward for an organisation which, a few years ago, referred to women who wear the niqab as “birds of death” on the front page of its newspaper.

Ensemble (my organisation) is similarly divided. Its press release was good, explaining that the new restrictions “had obviously nothing to do with the defence of secularism or of women’ rights” and defending the right to show one’s religious affiliations in public: “No, Muslims should not have to be ‘discreet’ in public in order to avoid being victims of Islamophobia. They are at home here in France. Such talk reminds us of the discriminatory practices against Jews, gypsies and foreigners at the darkest times in history”.

But the need to fight against Islamophobia is not a focus of our summer school, and it will be tough to organise action to match the words of the press release. On a more positive point, the (small) youth sections of Ensemble and of the NPA are significantly better on the issue than are the oldies.

Among other political forces, two of the most well-known feminist groups have published press releases, after remaining silent for a week. One of them, les Effrontées (Insolent Women) denounced the beachwear decrees, but reaffirmed its support for Islamophobic laws banning the niqab in the streets and the hijab in schools, and took the disastrous position of denouncing both the bans and the supposed submission of women behind the swimsuits.

The other, Osez le féminisme (Dare be a feminist!)  denounced “a double manipulation which stigmatises veiled women. First of all a manipulation by the clothes manufacturers who make these ‘modest’ swimsuits and by those who think women should be obliged to wear a veil. But at the same time a manipulation by these local chieftains who … choose to attack a particular group of women and deliver them over to racist harassment”.

The political confusion is immense.

Defending religious freedom

A number of people on the left have taken the disastrous position that discrimination should be extended to regulate the dress of Catholic and Jewish women. The mayor of Cannes said that Catholic nuns in their habits are not welcome on the beaches. The main aim of the decrees is Islamophobic, but anti-capitalists must be opposed to banning symbols of any religion. The expression of religious beliefs in public is specifically defended by article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In France, people who claim to be left wing or even revolutionaries are not prepared to defend even the rights that are theoretically guaranteed by bourgeois law!

It is striking how many of the positions are based on crass ignorance. The burkini is attacked as a symbol of Muslim fundamentalism, whereas in fact the tiny number of strict Muslim fundamentalists in France would be completely opposed to such a body-hugging outfit being worn by women in public!

The French league for human rights, Amnesty International and several of the French national newspapers have come out against the bans. The Conseil d’Etat, the highest appeals court in the country, has suspended the ban in one town. The judges stated that the by-law “has dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty”.

This decision is likely to have an effect on the other bans. Some of the mayors have already declared that they will ignore the court ruling, and significant sections of the political right are demanding a national law against burkinis. Whatever the future of such demands, it is crucial to remember that the bans had little to do with the small number of burkinis to be found in France, and everything to do with dividing the left and dividing the working class.

Other so-called debates (about pork-free menus at school dinners or about the wearing of the hijab) are likely to be whipped up in coming months unless there is a campaign against Islamophobia far bigger than what has occurred so far.

The tremendous uprising to defend workers’ rights in May and June may well not be over: new demonstrations and strikes have been called for 15 September. It is no accident that in the face of such a powerful movement, elites are hoping to concentrate everyone’s attention on Muslim swimwear and to whip up Islamophobia, hoping it will be the main focus of the 2017 presidential elections.

Those on the left who refuse to confront Islamophobia head on are making a grave error. This new crisis must lead to a reorientation of the French left on this issue, or the price to pay in division of our organisations and our class will be terrible.

John Mullen is an activist in the anti-capitalist group Ensemble and lives in the Paris region. He blogs at www.johnmullenagen.blogspot.fr.