Pseudo-secularism on the beach
The petty cruelty of the French burqini bans stems from an elite looking for scapegoats, writes Paul Demarty
As France is gripped by controversy over the ‘burqini’, we struggle on the question of how to characterise the affair: to wit, whether it is a farce or a horror. In truth, it is both - the two genres are, after all, more closely related than it may first appear, both subjecting their protagonists to suffering and humiliation.
The difference lies in the ends of this humiliation. For in the farce the audience is placed in an essentially sadistic role - we will on the pain, enjoying the missteps of the stupid, prideful characters. If we feel compelled to laughter over these events, it is surely directed at the sight of unended worthies - almost exclusively male - spluttering on about women’s bathing costumes, imbuing the subject with an apocalyptic importance, as if somehow one wrong move could set off a dirty bomb in Marseille.
Horror, on the other hand, is a masochistic, empathetic genre - we observe the characters in acute danger, and feel some measure of their pain. Faced with a woman being ordered to strip at gunpoint, we identify with the woman, not the cop; and we wonder with concern where exactly all this is going to lead.
The burqini is the most famous example of a micro-niche of the fashion industry - that of ‘modest beachwear’. It does not, to these eyes, look terribly suitable for the hot summers of the Riviera; but it has its fans. As the name (and recent controversy) fsuggests, it has a certain cachet among European Muslim women, who are its primary target market; yet it is also popular among the ultra-Orthodox women of Israel and, rather improbably, the innuendo-happy celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson.
Within its micro-niche, for what it is worth, the burqini is relatively immodest (and denounced as such in many mosques), since it hugs the figure. Many of the beaches of the south of France are the beneficiaries of the tourist patronage of Saudi Arabia’s elite - the women among them are not burqini wearers, but troop about the sands in full niqab. These women are not routinely accused of violating the morality of the republic - diplomatic sensitivities being what they are.
The burqini’s sudden prominence must surely be understood as a synecdoche for French society’s ragged nerves; for we are nearing the climax of an ugly political moment in French history.
That climax could very well be the victory of Marine le Pen in the first round of next year’s presidential election (with the candidate for the Republicans, probably Nicolas Sarkozy, likely both to complete the run-off and soak up alarmed socialist votes, the presidency itself is likely to be beyond her grasp). Le Pen heads up the Front National, whose politics she has successfully moderated from its former leadership’s anti-Semitic crypto-fascism to its present state of brash rightwing populism. Under Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the FN gave the mainstream parties a good scare in 2002, sneaking into the second round against Jacques Chirac; it would be something else again to win the first round outright. Yet that is where the polls are pointing at the moment.
Why? Partly, it is a matter of ‘normal’ political cycles: Le Pen père had his high moment at the fag-end of a Socialist government, and at such times it is usual to find the right rampant. In the case of François Hollande, it must be stated at the outset that his entire reign has been shambolic: riding to power on the back of tough talk about taxing the rich, he retreated lightning quick in response to a pretty minor flight of capital, and has galloped to the right ever since. As is typical, the base was placated with ‘right-on’ gestures - for instance on gay marriage - but, again typically, these allowed the FN to wed together social-conservative culture-warrior politics with pseudo-left populism on the economy.
On that basis alone, we would expect a revival in far-right hostility to immigrants and their identifiable descendants, and so it has proven; a big chunk of those people, in France, hail originally from the former colonies of north Africa, and are predominantly Muslim. There is, of course, a little something extra at work. For French soil has hosted several Islamist terror attacks these last couple of years. The most recent example of mass murder, in this connection, occurred in Nice - epicentre of the present controversy. The first of the burqini bans was introduced by David Lisnard, mayor of Cannes, but they rapidly spread; and it was Nice that provided the world with the most enduring image of the affair.
Both Lisnard and Nice’s deputy mayor, Christian Estrosi (who resigned on a technicality in June, but has taken the lead in the last week), are members of les Républicains - under pressure from their right, but no doubt capable of a good approximation of bigotry under their own steam. The same, of course, is true of prime minister Manuel Valls, who weighed in with his support for the ban. For his part, Hollande has greeted every new Islamist outrage with a yet more shrill declaration that “we are at war” - with whom? With random women on the beach, it seems. It is hardly surprising to find his government four-square behind the beach bigots. Most concerningly, 64% of the French population - according to one poll - agree with the bans.
“It is the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women,” Valls said, and his statement is, on the face of it, absurd - or rather, absurd if it is applied not more expansively to other religious women who cover up by the seaside (nuns, orthodox Jews ...). There is a certain reality to it, in that there is a clear tendency specifically among Muslims in the ‘war on terror’ era for individuals to make explicit their affiliation through ‘traditional’ or otherwise overtly religious dress.
There is a genuine argument - or rather, a genuine work of empirical observation, rather than yet another tiresome shouting match - to be had over how much this phenomenon (particularly as regards Muslim women) represents a rebellion ‘from below’ - ie, a sartorial ‘fuck you’ to empire - and how much it is a matter of social superiors of one sort or another imposing conservative dress. It is likely to be a combination of the two, and such choices can be highly context-specific in any case. In a society governed by official secularism, and increasingly hostile to overt religiosity on the part of Muslims, there must surely be limits on how far patriarchs can impose their will on daughters and wives; movement in the other direction speaks to a community recoiling from interference.
There is the rub. Assume, for a moment, that the wearing of the burqini is wholly an effect of the ‘counter-society’ of slave-women conjured up by Valls: in that case, then, the women have a problem, and that problem is a male-dominated society telling them what to wear. How is dispatching more men to give them different orders under threat of violence going to help? That cop on the Nice beach: I look at him, and I see - alas! - some topsy-turvy-world religious police force, enforcing with violent fanaticism the strictures of a sect that demands women go naked, or at least close enough to be ‘decent’. There is no practical difference, except that women may have an easier time of resisting the orders of their husbands and fathers than the admonitions of the armed apparatuses of the state.
Arguments over secularism and multiculturalism falter in the end by missing the fact that French state secularism is a fraud. At its best, it is an all-encompassing Jacobin anti-clericalism, which is still an error; in reality, it tends to collapse into oppression of those religious minorities that become awkward. Communists are militant opponents of religious dogma, of course - ours is a world view founded on materialism, and our eschaton is humanity’s final achievement of mastery over itself.
By that same axiom, however, liberation from religion cannot be imposed by an elite. Attempts to do so invariably stem from weakness, and for an object lesson we need look no further than the French elite, rocked by a series of terrorist atrocities and reduced to huffing, puffing and administering random beatings. We build, instead, a movement for socialist transformation, and in doing so make that common humanity into a practical and meaningful force in society. We do not tear down idols, but supplant them. In the small domain at issue here, we do not force women to strip, but empower them to make their own choices, whether they want to wear a bikini, a burqini, or a rubber gimp suit to the beach. We do not deny that there is a political significance to each choice; merely that the resolution of the political problem lies with government edicts or the ingenuity of tailors and fashion designers.