The silly season in the West always guarantees plenty of stories about bikinis. With very little to write about and acres of space to fill, there are numerous opportunities to get an image of a pretty sunbather in the media. In France, these stories invariably reference supermodels or flabby presidents showing off their latest love interests.
Such frivolity took on a disturbing twist last week, however, when details of an unpleasant fight between rival girl gangs in a park in Reims, eastern France, were fabricated to spread hatred against Muslims.
A bikini was the centrepiece of the deceit: a 21-year-old woman had been attacked, the initial reports suggested, because of her choice of attire. The victim had been in breach of some unspecified Islamic law – or so the warped storyline went – and a group of girls decided to punish her “for ‘immorally’ showing too much flesh in public”.
A call to the authorities in Reims soon established that the incident had, in the words of Julie Galisson, the senior police officer investigating the assault, “absolutely nothing to do with religion”. Arguments can and do escalate into violence, and this was yet another example of youths overstepping the mark. The victim, as well as those now facing violent disorder charges, all made this clear in their witness statements.
But the facts didn’t stop the bigots. As so often happens, stigmatisation of Muslims in France started off as innuendo, and rapidly degenerated into vicious insults. A chance to demonise Muslims was first taken up by a local newspaper in Reims. Its disturbing allegations about girls acting as self-styled “religious police” spread across the country. Within hours, minor French celebrities and politicians were contributing to a bizarre campaign championing the “right” to wear a bikini in public. The fact that nobody had ever questioned such a “right” did not seem to matter at all.
A group of women staged a mini-protest in the Reims park, while others posted pictures of themselves in their beach apparel, alongside the hashtag #jeportemonmaillotauparc (I’m wearing my swimsuit in the park).
Anne Sinclair, the multimillionaire art heiress and online journalist, used her Twitter account to make a particularly clumsy connection between the Reims incident and the closing of a beach near Cannes to the public, so that King Salman of Saudi Arabia could use it on his summer holiday.
The reality is that rich VIPs, including French politicians, are as likely to shut off stretches of coastline for their private use as a foreign ruler. This has nothing to do with Islam. Ms Sinclair’s fantasy role as a campaigner for freedom-loving bikini wearers against non-existent Muslim oppressors is all the more dismal considering how long she remained loyal to her ex-husband, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after the former IMF chief was accused of the attempted rape of a chamber maid in New York. She was widely attacked by feminists for bankrolling DSK’s defence before he finally paid an undisclosed sum to his accuser in a civil court.
One of the most worrying aspects of the Reims saga was how quickly this poison travelled abroad. Mainstream English language media outlets wrote conspiratorially about the alleged aggressors coming from “housing estates with large Muslim populations”. Substitute the word “Muslims” with “Jews”, or any other minority religion, in such reporting, and there would be criminal complaints. Instead, expressions of hate mushroomed, prompting Esther Benbassa, the Europe-Ecology party senator, to compare it to the kind of pre-Holocaust sentiments whipped up by the Nazis in the 1930s. “We’ve got to stop leaping on every incident,” she said. Le Monde also condemned the outpouring of “xenophobia, sexism, violence and vulgarity” – one which saw two of the Reims alleged assailants contemplate suicide and others suffer further physical attacks.
So it was that, once again, every effort was made to conflate any kind of antisocial activity with Islam – a religion followed by 1.6 billion people the world over, including some six million in France. While a park fight between provincial kids would usually go unmentioned in the local press, let alone garner international media attention, the insertion of the word “Muslim” guaranteed a major polemic. Many will at least now know that it was all based on a lie, but – as with the readers of all silly season stories in the West – there will be plenty of others around who will continue to believe every Islamophobic word.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Algerian journalist and broadcaster who specialises in Islamic affairs and the Arab world
On Twitter: @NabilaRamdani