The burkini hysteria of summer 2016 has once again turned France into the laughing stock of the Western, if not of the entire, world.

It took weeks of controversy and the seizing of the country's highest administrative authority - the Council of the State - to reaffirm the right for women to dress as they please in public space.

Last week, it turned out that former President Nicolas Sarkozy had himself orchestrated everything by pressuring mayors from his political party The Republicans to issue the ban.

As well as showing once again the irresponsible nature of the man, this revelation answers the question who benefits from the crime.

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Humiliating a weak minority

Barely nine months before the 2017 presidential election in France, Nicolas Sarkozy's move was intended to anchor debate in a clash of identities rather than a clash of concrete and ambitious projects for France.

Not surprisingly, he succeeded in setting the tone for the election without any resistance from his presidential rivals.

By following in the footsteps of Sarkozy, the right and even the left - as represented by Prime Minister Manuel Valls - have implicitly admitted that they agree on the failed neoliberal policies of Francois Hollande, and that there is no turning back from austerity nor going back to the welfare state.

It is admittedly inconceivable for such a trivial issue as a bathing suit worn by a few women to spark a national debate.

Over nine million French people live below the poverty line; yet economics, unemployment, staggering inequalities, institutional failures, a weakening schooling system, the environment, health coverage system deficit and pension funds are all being ignored through systematic 'Islamodiversion' with burkini as the latest illustration.

 

This further calls into question the real motives of the protagonists. The French political landscape is by and large dominated by white males above 50, and none of them voiced loud support for female politicians when they complained about sexism in politics or even sexual harassment.

In a country where a woman is raped every 40 minutes, where 200,000 women are victims of domestic violence and where the salary gap between men and women represents a whopping 15 percent on average, such staunch voices supporting women's rights would have been welcome.

Behind the call for "women's rights", politicians blew the dog whistle to issue new measures meant to humiliate a weak minority while making political gains.

Exposed

The burkini ban even revealed the underlying threat against French democracy itself. Rather than supporting the Council of the State's decision and upholding the rule of law, Manuel Valls declared that the debate must continue - after having supported the ban.

On the other hand - and after orchestrating the controversy - Sarkozy said that the French constitution should be changed in order to allow the burkini ban. Yes, the constitution!

Former President Sarkozy, centre, greets supporters during his first political campaign rally in Chateaurenard on August 25 [EPA]

In the meantime, right-wing candidates took the stage in their respective constituencies.

In a cheeky attempt to rewrite history and negate the massacres of millions of people, Sarkozy's former Prime Minister Francois Fillon singled out Muslims by indirectly naming them as the sole problematic community in France, and even that France should be proud of its colonial legacy.

Moreover, Alain Juppe, 73, who was Jacques Chirac's prime minister in the 1990s, invoked the idea of a contractual agreement on the principles of secularism between France and Muslims, as if the latter were newly arrived immigrants and had not been established for decades.

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The sole winner of this kind of one-upmanship is none other than Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who has remained silent throughout the summer.

She did not need to comment, nor intervene as all the other candidates were doing her job of campaigning solely on identity issues.

The real sufferers

The biggest losers, however, are the French people. More than nine million of them live below the poverty line; yet economics, unemployment, staggering inequalities, institutional failures, a weakening schooling system, the environment, health coverage system deficit and pension funds are all being ignored through systematic "Islamodiversion", with burkini as the latest illustration.

French people are being fooled, but they should only blame themselves. For decades they have failed to adopt a shared French identity, and are still battling to impose a dominant one.

Without much resistance, they have given their blessings to the normalisation of racism in public discourse, and many of them are enjoying this state of national neurosis.

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Nearly seven million voted for Marine Le Pen during the last regional elections, and all polls put her in the top three for the presidential election, even though she brings no concrete policies to the table.

So far, the task for bringing sound debates on socioeconomic issues lies on the shoulders of the social movements against labour reform, which are planning to take to the streets again.

Even though those social movements are fragmented, their mobilisation has a chance to succeed if they radicalise and become more inclusive for all those who took the brunt of austerity - including the "banlieue".

As French sociologist Louis Chauvel says, we are witnessing "the expiration of a large majority of the political and intellectual sphere who still live in a world that others have seen disappear for 30 years".

Yet, those people are still in charge and still hoping to go on. As long as it is ruled by political midgets, France will never rise again.

The early and violent start of the presidential election campaign means the forthcoming months are bound to be nasty and no one can expect any voice of reason to emerge.

The country's political system has been shouting that is outdated, but who will hear the call and who will act to change it?

Yasser Louati is a French human rights and civil liberties activist. His work focuses on Islamophobia, national security policies and social justice for minorities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera