For now, France’s burqini ban is gone, but it won’t be forgotten. Last week, the country’s highest court overturned the ban by a handful of seaside towns, declaring that it “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms”.
Some of the towns have vowed to press on with the ban, even though they will be pursued legally. Realistically, the brief ban has come to an end. Yet the argument has not gone away.
At the heart of this is a question of identity, of how the French state sees itself. The laïcité, secularism, at the heart of the French republic has often been invoked as a defence of the ban. Even the court was not convinced of that, noting that the state may be secular, but people are not and are free to be religious.
Indeed the ban appears to be more about how France wishes its society to be – erased of difference, defined not by what you are, but by what you are not. Such has been the criticism of minorities inside France – not merely Muslim and Jewish religious minorities, but racial groups as well. Being “French” is seen as the highest aspiration, but to be “French” is to erase all difference. Proud as they are of their culture and identity, French politicians have made the identity into a straitjacket, so that those who don’t fit the traditional mould, for whatever reason, feel left out and forced to conform.
There are legitimate reasons for those values and the French may well hold them dear. What is of greater concern is the way those values have been expressed. The row over the burqini ban has disproportionately targeted the French Muslim community. But it won’t end there.
Next year there will be a French presidential election and at least one contender, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, has suggested banning Muslim religious clothing across France. If that happens, it won’t stop there, and religious minorities with conservative or different ways of dressing – the Sikh and Jewish communities, for example – ought to be concerned.
The ban has been ugly but the background that precipitated it was uglier still. This is a difficult time in French politics after a number of domestic terror attacks and politicians, unable to get a grasp on the threat, have turned to scapegoating the Muslim community. That was an unhelpful response, but, unfortunately, probably only a sign of things to come.