Banned Burkini Highlights Tensions Over French Terrorist Attacks

Aug 24, 2016
Originally published on August 24, 2016 2:35 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tensions between religious Muslims and secular France are playing out on the country's beaches this summer. Mayors of several beach towns have banned the burkini. That's a body-and-head-covering bathing suit worn by some Muslim women. They say - the mayors - that it's a sign of extremism. Enforcement has varied from beach to beach, though, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley discovered on a trip to Normandy.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Normandy beach town of Deauville, known for horse racing and luxury hotels, is embroiled in a debate over the burkini this year. And everyone seems to have an opinion, whether they've seen one or not.

JOSE DAIREAUX: Yes, the bikini is fantastic.

BEARDSLEY: No, not the bikini, the burkini.

DAIREAUX: Ah, burkini (laughter). I don't know what is it, a burkini. I've never seen one. Do you have a picture of that?

BEARDSLEY: That 79 year old Jose Daireaux. When I finally do show him a picture of a burkini on my smartphone, he says it's absolutely wrong to allow that on the beach. He calls it an extension of the face-covering burqa and says France has to crack down on extremism. Philippe Guerin has been standing in the surf, talking to Daireaux. The middle school teacher completely disagrees.

PHILIPPE GUERIN: (Through interpreter) This is all links to the recent attacks and an Islamophobia that is rising in this country. People are confusing religion with terrorism. The racists are exploiting these attacks to try to make Muslims look like a terrorist threat.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Deauville Mayor Philippe Augier is attending the town's prestigious racehorse auction. So far, he says, he has no intention of banning the burkini. Augier says some mayors were pushed to because of tension in their communities. He mentions a beach brawl in Corsica, when some men took pictures of burkini-clad women.

PHILIPPE AUGIER: (Through interpreter) I don't have that problem. At the Deauville beach, everyone is there - Muslims and Jews and Christians - and it's a wonderful melting pot.

BEARDSLEY: Deauville is only a two-hour drive from Paris. And on this hot August afternoon, the beach is indeed a melting pot. This group of older Jewish sunbathers has been coming to Deauville for 35 years. They're angry about what they call an invasion of veiled women and burkinis. They don't want to give their names because of recent attacks on Jews by self-professed Islamist radicals.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "When you come to a country like France, you integrate," says this woman. "That means you go swimming in a bathing suit, not a wetsuit." This group says France has Judeo-Christian roots, not Islamic ones. And they say the country is being overrun by Muslims. Not far away, a group of young Muslims is playing volleyball. One of the women wearing a robe and veil is Wieem Zimzimi. She says the burkini is a wonderful liberation that allows some Muslim women to swim without heavy, wet robes. But this year, she feels uncomfortable wearing her burkini.

WIEEM ZIMZIMI: (Through interpreter) They're linking us to these terrorists, and we have nothing to do with their barbaric acts. We saw a group of nuns in their habits on the beach, and no one said a thing.

BEARDSLEY: Zimzimi says she and her friends are practicing Muslims and good French citizens. And she says they adhere completely to French values. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Deauville, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.