What would you do if you were Mayor of Nice?

Nice is still in shock. It’s just about a month and a half since the appalling attack which killed 84 people. That sort of carnage happening on your doorstep takes some getting over. People experience a huge range of emotions from anger to fear. What should the authorities be doing to help people through this time?

They should be reassuring people. They should be helping the whole community stand together in solidarity.

Instead, their headline response has been to pick on innocent women because of their attire on a beach. I have rarely been more annoyed by anything than the sight of a sleeping woman on a beach being surrounded by armed police and being forced to remove clothing. All this in the name of protecting women from oppression. I’m not quite sure how that works as a logical explanation.

What worries me most about this is that it is never a good idea for the state to legitimise people’s irrational fears. The Deputy Mayor of Nice said on the World at One yesterday that seeing women in burkinis made people feel unsafe.

You are in the swimming pool or you are in the beach [sic], now the situation as it is with the terrorism attacks, with the war in the Middle East, with the war against [the ultra-conservative Islamic movement] Salafism, people don’t support it anymore,” he told the BBC World at One.

“And so when you see a burkini on the beach, people feel unsafe.

The correct response to this is to find some way of helping those people get over themselves, not to demonise the innocent. If the state gives out the impression that these fears have some validity and that these women wearing particular garments are a threat, it is putting them at risk of attack and hatred while doing nothing to actually prevent the sort of mass murder which France has seen three times in the past year and a half. I am so furious about this. I actually want to head to Nice and wear one of the things on the beach just as a sign of solidarity with those women.

It always seems to be women’s bodies, clothing and behaviour that is first in line for condemnation and judgement. This, made by La Sauvage Jaune on Twitter, seemed to sum up nicely the double standards we face.

The only bit of blatant sexism from this last week that it seemed to miss out was the furore over the Sun having a go at Stacey Solomon for supposedly having saggy breasts. She took them on, though, in a Huffington Post blog:

And as for anyone feeling the strain of modern society to fit in to these scrutinising categories, join the revolution, love yourself and all of your differences. The exterior is superficial and the interior will be your golden ticket to happiness. You might even save some valuable time and money on ridiculous beauty regimes too!

The burkini ban should worry us all, though, men included. If it’s possible to pick on one innocent group of people, you could be next if the random whim of the people takes against you. The worst thing about the vote to leave the EU was not the economic doom which certainly awaits us, but the thought that politics in this country had lurched towards those who spread nationalism, prejudice and hate. If that culture is allowed to grow, at some point, something you do, maybe speak up for liberal values, will become taboo. Those of us who value freedom and human rights should be fighting things anything that arbitrarily stokes hatred.

So, what should the Mayor of Nice have said? He could take a leaf out of Justin Trudeau’s book. Yet again, he gets it right:

In Canada, can we speak of acceptance, openness, friendship, understanding? It is about where we are going and what we are going through every day in our diverse and rich communities,” he said.

Some lawmakers in Canada’s Quebec province have called for outlawing “burkinis” – body-concealing Islamic swimsuits – following bans in at least 15 towns in France’s southeast.

Trudeau called for “the respect of individual rights and choices.”

This, he said, should be “at the top of public discourse and debate”.

He’s right. The French authorities should think again. Otherwise they are betraying the values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

UPDATE: I hadn’t actually seen Tim Farron’s tweet before I wrote that last sentence. I think he took too long to comment, but he’s right:

UPDATE 2: The French courts, thankfully, have suspended the ban. Let’s hope that this is a stop to it being finally eradicated.

It said the ban “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms to come and go, freedom of beliefs and individual freedom”.
The ruling could set a precedent for up to 30 other towns that have imposed the ban.
The court will make a final decision on the legality of the bans later.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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21 Comments

  • Phil Beesley 26th Aug '16 - 3:08pm

    “What would you do if you were Mayor of a French city/town by the sea?”

    It would be wiser for the Mayor of Nice to observe what other Mayors are up to. Currently, it seems that three towns reckon that burkinis threaten the state or secularism. How many other seaside towns in France reckon that the burkini is a problem?

  • John Peters 26th Aug '16 - 3:14pm

    Probably moot as the ban has been overruled by a higher court.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Aug '16 - 4:08pm

    The burkini ban is outrageous and I’m glad the high court has suspended it. A lot of people in France, especially conservatives but hardline atheists too, keep banging on about “communautarisme” – “communitarianism” in English. We don’t use that phrase much in English, so I had to read more about the philosophy to see what they were getting so worked up about.

    It seems to be “communautarisme” is strong multiculturalism. We also sometimes call it identity politics, but this seems to be mainly about ethnic and religious minorities and segregation. They seem to fear that people who have more loyalty to their religious community than France as a whole are a terror threat, or even those who show broadly equal loyalty.

    Now, I’m not justifying their concerns, but it is interesting to read about the philosophy and see when it is brought up in debates.

    I also think it’s important to mention that France went through the same thing with its hardline Catholics over 200 years ago during the French revolution. This for me is the start of all the French obsession with religion and “laicité – secularism in English.

    It’s because they felt hardline Catholics were loyal to the Monarchy and the Pope and therefore a “threat to the Republic” and in response they persecuted them for a bit and it seems they are doing the same to Muslims now. I do think it is useful to go back to the revolution, because I’ve seen others start French Islamophobia with the invasion of Algeria in 1830, when this idea that strong religious identities, or even religion full stop, is incompatible with republicanism goes back further.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Aug '16 - 5:48pm

    Caron makes strong and eloquent points here in defence of , not so much or only , liberty ,as traditional mainstream practices , and notions , of what tolerance is .

    Many very conservative people with a sense of outrage at the revealing of flesh , would have , and did , dislike the mini skirt , before that, the dress above the ankle .

    Now it is acceptable for men and women to reveal three quarters or more , of their naked body on a beach , on nudist or topless beaches , more than that , and yet the state does not weigh in with draconian laws .

    It is absurd that the state allows the revelation of the body as acceptable , enjoyable , for the bearer of it and the onlooker , or the ignoring of it , depending on taste , but , considered no ones , or , pun intended for sure , no bodies business !

    As ever , Mill is our guide . Harm . Who is being harmed in public by the burkini ? Nobody!

    The French sensibility can veer towards the statist , and the French state has always been an uneasy mixture of the three parts of their so called revolutionary approach . In societies that overemphasise equality , beyond income , or poverty alleviation , but to include outcomes and practices , you get precious little liberty , and less fraternity !

  • What i would do if I were Mayor of Nice would be to get a group of nice women in headscarfs to demonstrate/distribute leaflets with me outside a mosque calling on all religions and none to stand together against terror (with cameras). Then I would put on my wet suit, book the photographers, and arrange to meet them wearing their burquinis on a beach with a couple of nuns and we’d all go wind surfing together .

  • “I actually want to head to Nice and wear one of the things on the beach just as a sign of solidarity with those women.”

    Monstrous and indefensible though the burkini ban is, the big problem with your response is that you have no idea how many of these burkini-clad women are genuinely wearing them by choice and how many are forced to wear them. Imagine you are a woman in the latter category, and you see these kinds of clothes as a symbol of your oppression and misery. How thrilled are you going to be at the sight of Western liberals unwittingly endorsing what’s happening to you by donning a burkini for a few hours in “solidarity”?

    There are much better ways of pointing out the wickedness of the ban, and it’s important to do it in a way which defends, just as robustly, the rights of women who don’t want to dress that way but are forced to. Women like the hundreds of social media users in Iran who have been arrested recently for posting pictures of themselves dressing how they want to in their own homes. The wrong done to these women is, if these things can be quanitified, if anything much worse that what is happening in France, but few liberals seem interested.

  • Jonathan Brown 27th Aug '16 - 2:33pm

    Well said Caron.

    I think Eddie Sammon is on to something when he puts this in the context of historic French struggles against the combination of religious and political power, but only something. I think it’s easy to ‘understand’ this as the modern version of the debate about the role of religion in a secular society.

    But I actually think it’s much more about modern racism and Islamophobia. Neither of which are new, and both of which have a long history in France, intertwined with liberalism and republicanism and secularism.

    This article on De Tocqueville’s racism is pretty revealing: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/alexis-de-tocqueville-father-western-liberalism-also-advocate-colonizing-algeria-920884576

    Of course, Britain has its own mixed history and struggles, but the Mayor of Nice would do well to take a leaf out of Sadiq Khan’s book.

  • David Cooper 27th Aug '16 - 6:15pm

    “you could be next if the random whim of the people takes against you”

    I don’t think the reaction against Islam in Nice is the result of a random whim.

  • @Jonathan Brown
    Ironically enough, one of the very first things Sadiq Khan did after taking office was to ban images of bikini-wearing women from the London Underground. Freedom always seems to have its limits, and much more so for women than for men.

  • Simon Banks 27th Aug '16 - 9:52pm

    Forcing people to wear particular dress when not at work, whether it’s a ban on burkinis or a ban on showing one’s face, is deeply illiberal and many work restrictions are also illiberal.

    I suppose the Mayor of Nice virtually has to be Nasty.

  • Joe Otten
    Things certainly do change there meaning. But your delivering a one sided version of the meaning. Is it not for instance possible that the Burkini to some French people is symbolic of recent violence and is seen as a provocation! Personally, I wouldn’t ban it, but I’m not French and the UK has a different interpretation of Freedom. Also is it not possible that in the context of British progressive thought the Burkini is symbolic of the security blanket of identity politics and sits comfortably with defined rules about the hierarchy of victimhood? Plus is it not equally possible that British Francophobic attitudes are not entirely absent the debate?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 28th Aug '16 - 8:25am

    Stuart, it seems highly unlikely that women wearing the burkini see it as a “symbol of their oppression and misery”. The burkini, despite its name, is completely different from the burka. The burkini is a very recent invention, and was designed by a woman whose intention was to empower and liberate Muslim women – enabling them to enjoy a day on the beach and swim in the sea, while remaining true to the standards of dress that they feel that their religion requires.

  • There seems to be this straw man that if you are against the burkini ban you must be in favour of women being forced to wear things they don’t want to. In fact, I will speak out and have spoken out against sexism and misogyny and coercion of women wherever I find it. Most of the time, when I do, I see a stream of comments, mainly from men, telling me I’m talking rubbish.

    Sexism and misogyny are embedded into our society – as this report in today’s Sunday Herald, showing the extent of sexual harassment and even violence in Scotland’s schools shows. http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14709313.Revealed__catalogue_of_sexual_assault_and_misogyny_in_Scottish_classrooms/

    We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that every women who wears a hijab is being forced to do so. That is far from the case, as some of my most independent minded friends can testify. As liberals, we should support freedom and oppose coercion.

    Every aspect of our society needs greater representation of women – and that includes mosques, as muslim feminist, and my friend, Talat Yaqoob wrote earlier this year. http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14292292.Muslim_Feminists__It_is_time_for_men_to_make_way_for_women_at_Glasgow_Mosque/.

    Sexism and misogyny is everywhere – and needs to be tackled everywhere.

  • Caron Lindsay 28th Aug ’16 – 10:05am………..There seems to be this straw man that if you are against the burkini ban you must be in favour of women being forced to wear things they don’t want to. In fact, I will spe,ak out and have spoken out against sexism and misogyny and coercion of women wherever I find it. Most of the time, when I do, I see a stream of comments, mainly from men, telling me I’m talking rubbish………

    I’d suggest that the straw man is the idea that if you support the ban, then you are against women being able to wear ‘what they want’…….
    The French Embassy was besieged by women demanding ‘freedom of dress’…The Saudi Embassy, on the other hand, ………

  • @Catherine
    “Stuart, it seems highly unlikely that women wearing the burkini see it as a ‘symbol of their oppression and misery’. The burkini, despite its name, is completely different from the burka.”

    I don’t agree, since both serve the same purpose, and both apply to women only. We can’t know the numbers, but it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that at least some burkini-wearing women, if allowed to wear what they liked, would feel as liberated as those women in Syria the other week who were filmed joyously burning their burkas.

    The burkini is a very recent invention, and was designed by a woman whose intention was to empower and liberate Muslim women – enabling them to enjoy a day on the beach and swim in the sea

    Perhaps true empowerment for Muslim women would be to allow them to simply go to the beach wearing whatever they like – as, it must be said, Muslim men can? The Quran says that both men and women should dress “modestly”. The only special instruction given to women is that they should cover their chests. These days, this dress code is often interpreted as skimpy speedos for the men, and a burkini for the women. This is all about controlling women – it has everything to do with patriarchal culture and nothing at all to do with the original religion.

    That said, on a pragmatic level, if a woman is forced to cover up, then a burkini does in a sense broaden her opportunities (I think “liberate” is too strong a word here) since she can go places she would not be allowed to otherwise. I used to go to a large swimming pool in central Manchester and there would always be a large group of hijab and burka clad women sitting by the side of the pool while their husbands and children had fun in the water. I always used to wonder whether they’d rather be joining in – perhaps these days some of them put on a burkini and do just that.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 28th Aug '16 - 11:25am

    I absolutely agree with the points Caron makes above. But while it is true that this is a feminist issue, it should be remembered that this is also about freedom of religion. France seems to be becoming horrifyingly Islamophobic. To be free to practice one’s religion is a fundamental human right, and to refuse to allow someone to dress in a way that she considers is required by her religion, is a violation of her human rights.

  • @Caron
    I haven’t claimed that any liberals support forcing women to wear Islamic dress. The point is that there are good and bad ways of attacking the obvious illiberality of the burkini ban, and we should be careful to do so in a way that does not bolster those who would force women to dress in a certain way.

    At the demonstration outside the French embassy the other day (as shown in your picture), a French-Algerian woman said something like this to the protesters: “In Algeria my mother had to wear a veil. In France she never wore a veil.” While I don’t agree with this woman’s conclusion (she was in favour of the ban) she made a powerful point about the dangers of celebrating the burkini as some sort of advancement in women’s liberty. It may be for some but it is the opposite for others.

    This will always be an extremely difficult issue for the obvious reason that many women choose freely while many others are coerced, and it’s often difficult to tell which is which. Supporting the rights of each group in ways that do not undermine the rights of the other should be our goal. Personally I think the right approach would be to assert unequivocally (in law if necessary) the right of women to wear whatever they like in normal situations, while at the same time making it an offence for somebody to coerce a woman to dress in a certain way, giving those women the same kind of legal protections they now enjoy from, for example, arranged marriages.

  • If this is really about freedom, then could you not equally argue that as it is not enforced by religious codes then overtly religious clothing in a country that has a pro-active secularist interpretation of liberty is entirely unnecessary. But of course it is not really just about freedom. In this case it’s actually also about bellicose displays of “liberal” pieties that try to present a huge globe spanning often very oppressive religion complete with apostasy laws and nearly two billion followers as the life-style choice of an oppressed minority. My view of the Burqini is that it shouldn’t be banned, but equally it should not be applauded.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Aug '16 - 5:47pm

    I agree with both Caron and Ctherine , but would go further yet.

    Caron rightly describes the issue as one about the freedom of women

    Catherine rightly adds the freedom of religion

    This is about the freedom of the individual , female , male , religious , secularist.

    Today it is women , and a religious dress, tomorrow , who knows ?!

    France is a great nation. But the Parisian live and let live ,that saw Oscar Wilde at home there, and not , alas in Britain then , as a gay man , and later on , Josephine Baker at home there, but not alas in America then, as a black woman, sits uneasily with a community ,conformity , nationwide , in a sense , that finds expression in the regional successes of the Front National there. Eddie Sammon , constructively touches on it above .

    We must listen to all, who , as Caron and Catherine remind us , not that we hopefully need reminding , show that these issues need a vigilance on the coercian , issue , whether based on gender or faith .Of course we speak out against forced practices , those against women , often, or victimising anyone ,at times. We are the party that had the excellent Lyn Featherstone , and her work against female genital mutilation.

    We cannot , must not, join in the patronising , statist ,attitudes of the ultra secularist group think that seeks to be the know all , arbiter of individual reasoning. In its more mundane but equally absurd politically correct way it is seen in the ban of a simple cross worn around the neck.

    Taking gender or religion out of it or including it , can you imagine a photo , worth staging as a stunt , and as a satire, of a group of armed police surrounding a woman in a burkini, while , to the side , lie a scantily clad couple , he in the briefest of briefs , she the briefest of bikinis, canoodling , bothered by no one , and certainly not by , the … police !

  • Tony Dawson 30th Aug '16 - 4:28pm

    Get it clear: the burqini is a cultural, not a religious issue. There are millions of Muslim women world wide who would no sooner wear a burqa than they would shred their own children in a waste disposal unit.

    What we need to get focused on is to engage all sensible Christian, Muslim, Hindu Sikh and Atheist/Humanist communities in this country against Wahabism. The murderous intolerant creed being peddled by our… er…. ‘allies’ (sic) the ultra-democratic Saudi Arabia and their ISIS mates presently bombing the hell out of poor innicent families in the Yemen.

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