In almost every country, there are laws or regulations to prevent people from wearing skimpy clothes which are too revealing. In France, however, the trend now is to ban people from wearing too much in public.
For many non-French, the idea that one of the most enlightened, wealthy and stable European nations should question the acceptability of the “burkini” – the loose-fitting wetsuit worn by some Muslim women as a way of avoiding showing too much skin while enjoying a day at the seaside – seems bizarre, if not downright silly.
But not in France, where the garment is seen as a deliberately chosen symbol of rejected integration, and where politicians appear to have persuaded themselves that some religious-based dress codes almost automatically imply disloyalty to their nation and its values.
There isn’t a single explanation as to why France continues to react in such a visceral way to any cultural dispute with its Muslims, or why France’s relations with its Muslim community are far more tense than those of other European countries. But France’s very specific historic traditions have a great deal to do with this problem, and are likely to continue complicating the integration of its Muslim minority. Put simply, France is a unique case in Europe.
One factor making France’s relations with its Muslims more difficult than those of its European neighbors is the sheer size of its Muslim community, which, at around 8 per cent of France’s total population, is the highest in Europe.
This does not make the French either particularly racist, or anti-Islamic. In fact, as a pan-European poll conducted earlier this year revealed, only 28 per cent of voters in France admit to having a negative opinion of Muslims, far less than almost everywhere else in Europe.
A larger share of France’s Muslims live in effectively segregated urban communities than Muslims in Britain, for instance. And the incidence of petty crime – as well as wealth disparities – in such communities is higher than figures recorded in comparable deprived residential areas in other European states.
But the biggest difference in this respect between France and the rest of its continent is that, for most Frenchmen and women, their existence is not only about a country and a nation, but about a community of values – values which are pre-determined and not easily movable.
The current French Constitution, adopted in 1958, starts with the memorable phrase that “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. Yet the word “secular” does not truly convey the meaning of the French word “laique”, which the Constitution uses.
According to a 1905 law, the French government is legally prohibited from recognizing any religion. Instead, it merely recognizes religious organizations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious beliefs. No religion can be supported by the state, religious education in schools is strictly forbidden and no new religious symbols can be placed in public places, including graveyards.
More broadly, public expression of religious beliefs are viewed in France with distaste and suspicion, and organized religion is regarded as a retrograde step, a return to a dark past which “The Republic” supposedly ended.
Seen from this perspective, the attempted ban on the burkini – now largely reversed by France’s judges – makes perfect sense. What the various French mayors who imposed the ban did was to uphold, as they saw it, the status of beaches as religious-free public places, where no outward displays of faith should be allowed. The ban may appear comical to us, but it certainly was not a funny pastime for the French.
But only the French can answer the fundamental questions facing them. And, at least for the moment, their determination to uphold their secular republican traditions remains unshaken. Expect the forthcoming French presidential electoral campaign to spark off many more burkini-style disputes.