France is a funny country. For the past five years her leaders have been trying by all means to topple the only nonsectarian regime in the Middle East. They are delivering weapons to jihadists in the name of democracy and human rights. They are bombing civilian populations in the name of the fight against terrorism they support elsewhere. They are handing out honorific medals and selling fighter jets to Saudi sponsors of global terror. But this permanent absurdity of our foreign policy shocks no one. It arouses only mild debates in mainstream media. There is no crowd movement to denounce its noxiousness. It almost goes unnoticed, giving way to other preoccupations.
The Aleppo events have indeed failed to incense the crowds. Those mystifying exotic clashes leave everyone cold. Far from us, they are as if struck with insignificance. The real subject is elsewhere, its urgency is obvious, its extreme seriousness petrifies us all with anxiety: the burkini! This bathing suit of sorts should only deserve, in the worst case, a sly or a wry smile. It should, in the best of cases, give rise only to utter disregard. But here it is, transformed into a casus belli for wild holidaymakers, into an extravagant pretext for an umbrella fight. Brought to incandescence by the Corsican atmosphere, discord is nearing its climax in strikes of cans and barroom darts.
Would it be wrong not to take seriously this unbelievable feud? Yes, we are told, because it is, at is were, symbolically decisive. It is fraught with implicit meaning, pregnant with an existential threat. As some have it, it would even reach the level of supreme struggle for the defense of our values. Threatened with subversion, the European identity has staked its life on this seasonal brawl with pastis whiffs. Dismissing petanque and dip nets, it might push holiday passions into the props store. Whilst in German swimming pools nobody raises a brow, this damn garment is moving public opinion here with remarkable intensity.
It is everybody’s right, of course, to dislike this swimwear for what it represents. For this seaside version of the full-face veil proceeds of a rigor which it is legitimate to fight at the level of ideas. But life in society also implies acceptance of cultural differences. So long as it does not impede individual freedom, a social practice, be it dress code or other, can only be prohibited if it violates a fundamental principle. But in this case, which one? One finds it hard to think of any. And when the practice of some is prohibited because others do not like it, this begs the question: in a secular state, are legal prohibitions designed to espouse the subjective dislikes of one side or the other?
As a collateral effect of the climate created by the attacks, this ban actually relates without saying so back to the fight against terrorism. That the burkini has an implicit conniving relationship with the Wahhabi ideology actually is not wrong. That that ideology is the original matrix of jihadism is not wrong either. But women who adopt this dress by religious conviction are not ipso facto adepts of terrorism. And the reason for the ban, admittedly, remains legally weak, since the fact that the face is hidden, as with the burqa, cannot be invoked.
For all that, for a portion of the French population that argument is of little weight. In their eyes, this symbolic fight is the last-ditch fight of the West hounded by barbarians. The hair-to-toe swimwear war is the clash of civilizations within beach goers’ reach, the great identity thrill during happy hour with olives on the side. They believe they are fighting fanaticism by hunting down burkinis, when they are merely chasing shadows, unaware of the diversion they are lending a hand to. Nurtured by rapacious media, this ridiculous battle once again diverts attention from the basics. This futile argument is a smokescreen crooked politicians turn to their advantage. And it shows our political incapacity to take radical Islam seriously to combat it more effectively.
Bruno Guigue,| August 15, 2016
Bruno Guigue, former ENS and ENA student, is a French civil servant, an essayist and a political scientist. He teaches philosophy in secondary school and is a part-time lecturer in international relations at the Université de La Réunion. He is the author of five books, notably Aux origins du conflit israélo-arabe, L’invisible remords de l’Occident (The origins of the Israeli-Arab conflict, The West’s invisible remorse), L’Harmattan, 2002, and of hundreds of articles.
Translated By Barang Marcel