The gun-toting secularists left the French beaches at the end of summer after being beat back by the highest court, but the uproar over beaches banning the body-covering Muslim bathing suit, known as the burkini, is not. In fact, the debate has morphed into an even bigger discussion about the place of Islam in this staunchly secular nation, so reports NPR Morning Edition.
"About 30 French towns tried to ban the burkini on their beaches this summer. One by one, French courts overturned many of the bans, calling them unconstitutional.
But that didn't stop the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, from throwing his full support behind them. Sarkozy, who is running for president again, is determined not to be outdone by the far right. He is making questions of "national identity" a big part of his campaign.
"We can't leave these mayors to deal with this problem alone," he said in a recent radio interview. "There needs to be a law to keep these Islamic bathing suits out of our swimming pools and off our beaches."
When the radio host pointed out that the bans were unconstitutional, Sarkozy retorted, "Then we'll change the constitution." …
Many French people see the burkini as extremist clothing and a provocation after two attacks this summer by self-proclaimed Islamist radicals. One was in a Normandy church, the other on a crowded boulevard in the southern city of Nice.
Even if they don't see it as a threat, at the very least some French people see the burkini as repressive clothing that represents the subordination of women.
A recent poll showed that more than 60 percent of French people supported the burkini bans. ...
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently summed up French secular values and women's rights in one figure: Marianne, the oft-depicted bust of a revolutionary woman who is meant to represent the French Republic.
In a speech to fellow Socialists, Valls said a democratic and free society is judged on the place of women. And that equal rights has been the historic battle of the left.
"Marianne has a bare breast because she feeds the people," he said. "She is not veiled because she is free! That's the French Republic! That's Marianne!" Valls yelled to a cheering crowd. But television cameras zoomed in to show France's female education minister, Najat Valaud Belkacem, scowling in the front row.
Valls' remarks started a fury on social media, with one woman declaring: "We are not milk cows."
"My blood boiled when I heard those comments," says Mathilde Larrère. So the university history professor fired off a history lesson to Valls in a flurry of tweets.
Larrère says Marianne is an 18th century allegorical figure created at a time when women couldn't vote and had the legal status of minors. She says Valls' comments have turned many French feminists into burkini supporters.
"Granted, the burkini is not a neutral piece of clothing," says Larrère. "But it is out of the question to restrict what women wear and ban them from the public space." ...
Church and state
Larrère says the 1905 law separating church and state has traditionally given space to all religions to practice.
"But the principal of secularism is now being used as a spear in xenophobic, Islamophobic and sexist battles," she says."