French Riviera’s burqini ban: Don’t-show-so-we-don’t-know that you’re Muslim

What does banning the burqini in Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet, two resorts on the French Riviera, accomplish?

It might, as Villeneuve-Loubet’s mayor has said, help with hygiene issues, or at least France’s traditional perception of what constitutes sanitary swimwear. This is a country that has long believed men should wear “Speedo” style bathing suits rather than bigger ones they might have sported elsewhere at some point in the day. France actually enacted a ban in 1903 on the wearing of swimming shorts or Bermudas in public pools.

And the burqini ban might, as the mayor of Cannes, has said reduce the risk “of trouble to public order.”

What does that mean?

It means that people on or around the beaches of Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet will be less fearful at the thought that amongst them are people who practice their Muslim faith.

It’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell except that it’s don’t-show-so-we-don’t-know.

Don’t know what, you might ask. Don’t know that you’re an observant enough Muslim to wear a burqini.

There are two problems with this approach to fighting terrorism or the public’s fear of terrorism.

It adds to the chafing of communal relations. And it is pretty pointless.

First, to the friction produced by the repetitive rubbing up of non-Muslim French people against Muslim French men and women.

Those who aren’t Muslim will probably feel marginally better by not having to see recognizably observant Muslims around them. They may also feel a mildly triumphalist sense of having got their way (“my country, my values”). Meanwhile, the Muslim French presumably won’t mind overmuch, especially at this point of time when they are in the eye of an ugly global and national storm. However, they may feel a dull resentment at having to make wardrobe decisions that have nothing to do with being immodest (for instance, going naked in public) but rather too modest. Are we getting to the point when only a truly absurd series of security tests will make us feel absolutely safe at airports, when entering government buildings, malls and public concerts: eat bacon, drink whisky, wear little and you may pass.

So, to the petty pointlessness of it all. Banning the burqini does not make us safer. Anywhere.

Consider this. France was one of the first European countries to pursue a burqa ban, prohibiting the full-face covering in public places since 2011. But its Interior Ministry admitted even before the ban that the niqab is worn by fewer than 2,000 women in the country and almost no one wore the burqa. What was the rationale for it then? Just point-scoring? I haven’t seen estimates for burqini-wearers in France, but the chances are they’re pretty low.

As Huda Jawad recently wrote in The Independent, “Since when was wearing a burkini, in most cases a loose fitting nylon version of a wetsuit, become an act of allegiance to terrorist movements?”

It’s not.

Like the community police officers who ineffectually but visibly walk the streets of London, banning the burqini is an attempt by the authorities to reassure the public. That’s all.

Originally published at on August 15, 2016.