‘Naked breasts, not burkinis!’ French PM wades into stormy waters with national identity speech

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French Prime Minister Manuel Valls poured more oil onto the ongoing controversy over Islamic clothing in public places, when he appeared to suggest that head-to-toe coverings worn by Muslim women contravened the French spirit.

Valls, who is considered to be on the right wing of the ruling Socialist party, invoked the image of country’s national symbol, Marianne, which was adopted during the French Revolution to represent freedom and enlightenment – and the rejection of traditional values.

“Marianne has bare breasts because she feeds the people, she does not wear a headscarf because she is free!” Valls told a group of supporters during a public speech. “That’s the Republic!”

The sentiment comes at a particularly sensitive time, after mayors of around 30 French cities banned the burkini, a ‘modest’ female Islamic swimming suit, under the pretext that they were unhygienic and were likely to provoke public disorder and anti-Muslim sentiment in a country still smarting from a string of terror attacks.

The ban has been overturned by higher courts, but some mayors have said that they intend to enforce them regardless.

Valls had been in favor of the anti-burkini law, saying that the garment is “the expression of a political project, a counter-society, based notably on the enslavement of women.”

Valls’ Marianne quote served as touch paper for an ill-tempered online debate.

READ MORE: People are asking France to ban ‘pasty’ fat men in Speedos instead of burkinis

Left-wing historian Mathilde Larrere shot back that “Marianne has a bare breast because it’s an allegory, you cretin!” She then posted a series of images showing that Marianne was not always bare-breasted, noting that she is often wearing a Phrygian cap, itself a head covering, albeit one that symbolizes freedom.

Other users noted that Marianne would be just as likely to be arrested – for public indecency – as a burkini wearer, or noted that using images created within a different cultural context centuries ago was not conducive to a productive debate.

There were also some Valls supporters, who praised him for resisting the perceived Islamisation of the European culture.

Valls, and other, often nominally left-wing politicians are resorting to the current measures in the face of a surge of popularity for right-wing parties, including the National Front, ahead of next year’s elections.