PARIS – Male officials are dictating what women can wear on French beaches — and people across a wide swath of French society say that's a good thing.
Decrees issued by several mayors this month ban the body-encompassing burkini swimsuit, which France's secular political class says subjugates women and is incompatible with a country whose motto celebrates equality and freedom.
To many Muslim women, that's pure hypocrisy. They see the burkini bans themselves as sexist, not to mention racist and a reactionary backlash to terrorism fears.
Even though it's only worn by a tiny minority, the burkini — a wetsuit-like garment that covers the torso, limbs and head — has prompted a national discussion about Islam and women's bodies. At least five towns have banned them this summer, and others are threatening to follow suit.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls says the swimsuit reflects a worldview based on "the enslavement of women." In an interview published Wednesday in the La Provence newspaper, he said the belief that women are "impure and that they should therefore be totally covered" was part of an "archaic vision."
"That is not compatible with the values of France," Valls said.
Much of the French political class, from the left to the far right, agrees — including the government's proudly feminist women's affairs minister.
"The burkini is ... a particular vision of the place of the woman. It cannot be considered only as a question of fashion or individual liberty," Laurence Rossignol said on Europe-1 radio.
But Rim-Sarah Alouane, a religious freedom expert at the University of Toulouse, says the anti-burkini brigade is relying on outdated ideas about Islam to stigmatize France's No. 2 religion.
"Women's rights imply the right for a woman to cover up," said Alouane, a Muslim who was born and raised in France. The burkini "was created by Western Muslim women who wanted to conciliate their faith and desire to dress modestly with recreational activities.
"What is more French than sitting on a beach in the sand? We are telling Muslims that no matter what you do ... we don't want you here," she said.
Local mayors cite multiple reasons for their burkini bans, including the difficulty of rescuing bathers in copious clothing. But their main justification is security concerns after a season marred by deadly Islamic extremist attacks.
Critics warn the bans could enflame religious and social tensions in a country already on edge.
"It will accentuate tension within French society," Leyla Dakhli, a French-Tunisian professor of Arab history, said. "We are teaching the French public to associate a woman in (a) burkini with the terrorist who assassinates."
Before the brouhaha over burkinis, French laws banning face-covering veils in public and headscarves in schools — also based on view that they violate French secularism and oppress women — had alienated many among France's 5 million Muslims.
Violent extremists also have cited the earlier bans as one of their justifications for targeting France.
Dakhli said the bans reflect a colonial-era view of Muslims. While some women today may wear burkinis at the behest of a man, others freely choose them for reasons of personal faith, she said
"It's not a question of whether the veil signifies enslavement or independence. There are as many answers ... as there are women in the world," she said.
The bans, which carry small fines for violators, reflect an unusually fierce attachment to secularism in this country, and have perplexed people outside France.
"Politicians talk constantly about integration and inclusion, and then proceed to kick out to the fringes the very women they claim are oppressed and excluded from society," Remona Aly of the Exploring Islam Foundation wrote in The Guardian this week.
In other European countries, burkinis are rare, though some public pools restrict them — like baggy men's swim trunks — for reasons of hygiene.
In neighboring Belgium, however, Nadia Sminate of the right-leaning Flemish N-VA party, chair of the Radicalization Committee in the Flemish Parliament, wants burkinis off public beaches.
"I do not think women want to walk around on the beach with such a monstrosity in the name of their faith," she told Flemish daily De Standaard.
France's prime minister said that while he supports local bans — "in the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself," he told La Provence — he is not in favor of a national law against burkinis.
Valls called for calm, especially in Corsica, where a clash broke out over the weekend between local residents and bathers of North African origin.
Some reports said it started because a young man took a photo of a woman in a burkini, though the exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and reporters around Europe contributed to this report.