French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned against stigmatising Muslims as a furore over the banning of burkinis grew with the emergence of pictures of police surrounding a veiled woman on a beach.
“The implementation of secularism, and the option of adopting such decrees must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people,” said Cazeneuve on Wednesday, after a meeting with the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM).
Dozens of French towns and villages, mostly on the Cote d’Azur, have banned beachwear that “conspicuously” shows a person’s religion, a measure aimed at the full-body swimsuit dubbed “burkini” but which has also been used against women wearing long clothes and a headscarf.
CFCM president Anouar Kbibech requested an urgent meeting with Cazeneuve after pictures emerged of a veiled woman sitting on a beach in Nice removing her tunic, watched by four policemen.
The images, which went viral on social media, were interpreted as showing the woman being pressured by police into removing the garment.
Nice mayor’s office, however, denied she had been forced to remove clothing, telling AFP that the woman was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her tunic, over a pair of leggings, when the picture was taken.
The police issued her with a fine and she then left the beach, the officials added.
The bans, which follow a string of attacks around France, including a massacre in Nice on Bastille Day last month, have sparked a heated debate about Muslim integration and French secular values.
While the burkini bans have been presented by the mayors as necessary to defend secularism and public order, police have also fined women for being fully clothed and having their heads covered, out of the water.
On Tuesday, a 34-year-old mother, who gave her name only as Siam, told AFP she was fined on the beach for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf.
“I had no intention of swimming,” the woman, who was accompanied by her children at the time, said.
A witness to the scene, journalist Mathilde Cusin, said some onlookers had applauded the police and shouted at Siam to “go home”.
Kbibech referred to her case in a statement ahead of his meeting with Cazeneuve.
The CFCM was “concerned over the direction the public debate is taking,” citing the “growing fear of stigmatisation of Muslims in France”, he said.
Burkini furore on Twitter
The photos of the woman on the beach in Nice, first published by Britain’s Daily Mail, caused a furore on Twitter, with the hashtag #WTFFrance becoming a top trending topic.
“Just let this sink in. Men with guns forcing a women to undress, with the weight of the law behind them,” read a tweet by user Abdel-Azim, who is described as the editor of a religious magazine, which was retweeted more than 26,000 times.
— Elena Rossini ✨🎥 #ThisIsWhataFilmmakerLooksLike (@_elena) August 24, 2016
“I am so ashamed,” French feminist Caroline De Haas tweeted.
On Thursday, France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, will examine a request by the Human Rights League to scrap the ban.
Lower courts have upheld the bans, with a tribunal in Nice, where a Tunisian man used a truck to mow down a crowd of Bastille Day revellers on July 14, saying the burkini could “be felt as a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by” the community.
France enforces a strict form of secularism, aimed at keeping religion out of public life.
Islamic dress has long been a subject of debate in the country, which was the first in Europe to ban the Islamic face veil in public in 2010, six years after outlawing the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.
However, ordinary citizens are allowed to wear the headscarf in public.