French Prime Minster Manuel Valls stoked controversy by suggesting naked breasts are more representative of France than burkinis.
PM Valls was left looking ignorant after historians mocked and questioned his claim about Marianne, the “Goddess of Liberty” – a national symbol of the French Republic – at a government rally.
The dress code of Muslim women in France has been in the spotlight over the past fortnight after controversial “burkini bans” introduced in beach resorts, towns and cities across the country were overturned.
Despite this many local authorities have vowed to keep them in place.
On Tuesday, a court in Nice ruled the burkini ban in Cannes violated basic religious freedoms.
This followed a ruling by France’s highest administrative court over a similar ban in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet, in which the Council of State said the ban “has dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty.”
The debate around burkinis has gone global and on Monday PM Valls weighed in by invoking the image of Marianne, a depiction of the Goddess of Liberty and significant republican symbol.
At a rally on Monday, he said: “Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”
Valls has been mocked by French historian Mathilde Larrere, who called him a “cretin” and revealed the Prime Minister’s ignorance by saying Marianne is a symbol of liberty, not the republic.
French historian Nicolas Lebourg also pointed out Mr Valls’ may have confused Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The People with Marianne.
The PM’s comments come at a time of increasing Islamophobia in France. At the weekend two Muslim women in hijabs were refused service in a Michelin star restaurant because of their faith.
Earlier this month, a halal supermarket in a Paris suburb was told by local authorities it must sell alcohol and non-halal meat or face closure.
Since November last year 20 mosques have been shut down due to “security”.
French Muslims are feeling increasingly marginalised, and PM Valls’ comments could increase stigmatisation and discrimination.
Speaking to 5Pillars, a French Muslim who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “Valls just wants to make clear that according to him, hijabs or burkinis (maybe Arabic names soon), are not related to the French Republic. In the mind of some people, seeing a woman wearing a hijab means there is a risk that one day Marianne’s name might be changed to Khadija.”
He feels the debate about burkinis has a wider context and the parameters of French secularism are being stretched beyond their initial remit.
The French Muslim added: “If we look at the bigger picture, the real debate is the place occupied by Muslims within French society, their visibility through the way they look and the current understanding by French politicians of what secularism is according to the 1905 law, especially Article 2.
“Aristid Briand, who summarised this law asked himself about the “clothing code” related to religions. At that time it was about the Christian religion. And what he says is that there is no difference between wearing a cassock or regular pants or a dress or whatever. The term that he uses is the state doesn’t have the ability to “recognize”; there should be “indifference” from the state regarding this matter.
“Hence, people should be able able to wear whatever they want without being discriminated. It means that Marianne could be showing her breast as mentioned by Valls, but also wearing a hijab.”