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Burkini ban splits French government as London mayor criticises it

A woman wearing a burkini on a beach in Marseille
A woman wearing a burkini on a beach in Marseille Reuters

London mayor Sadiq Khan spoke out against the burkini ban imposed by 31 French towns before visiting Paris Thursday. As the country's top court considers the legality of the decisions, the row has reached the ranks of the government with Prime Minister Manuel Valls criticising Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem for saying the bans were part of a "dangerous trend" that encourages racism.

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Khan's comments were unlikely to please French politicians and editorialists who proved touchy about the overwhelmingly hostile comments on the burkini ban abroad.

"I don't think anyone should tell women what they can and can't wear. Full stop. It's as simple as that," Khan told the London Evening Standard newspaper.

"I don't think it's right. I'm not saying we're perfect yet, but one of the joys of London is that we don't simply tolerate difference, we respect it, we embrace it, and we celebrate it."

Asked her reaction ahead of her meeting with Khan, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo slammed "media hysteria" on the question.

"There are much more important matters in France," she told a press conference, adding that, altough she had supported bans on the burka and religious symbols in schools, "sometimes the law is not the answer".

French newspapers' coverage of the burkini row
French newspapers' coverage of the burkini row RFI

Valls criticises Vallaud-Belkacem

Now the row has reached government level, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who has defended local mayors' right to issue the banning order, slapping down his education minister for declaring the ban "not welcome".

Vallaud-Belkacem, who is of Moroccan origin, told Europe 1 radio that, as a feminist, she opposes the burkini but went on to call the growing number of bans a "dangerous trend".

"I think there's a problem," she went on. "It poses the question of our individual freedoms. How far are we going to go to establish whether an outfit conforms with our moral standards."

"It frees up the voice of racism, we've seen that when people were fined and in other incidents," Vallaud-Belkacem commented.

Shortly afterwards Valls flatly denied there was any "trend" and called Vallaud-Belkacem's fears about racism were a "misinterpretation" because the decrees were issued in the name of public order.

Socialist Party left-winger Yann Galut slammed the prime minister on Twitter.

"Once again Valls divides the French, the left and even his own government," he tweeted. "Many of us can't put up with it any longer."

Other left-wingers, including Left Party leader and 2017 presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and former housing minister and Green Party member Cécile Duflot, have also criticised the bans as part of a process that is stigmatising Islam and setting people at each others' throats.

Council of State to rule on bans

The country's highest legal body, the Council of State, was to discuss the legality of the ruling by the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubot on Thursday, following an appeal by the French Human Rights League.

Its decision will have implications for the 30 other towns that have taken similar measures.

In 2010 it advised that a ban on wearing face-covering garments like the burka in public did not have an "incontestable legal basis" but President Nicolas Sarkozy's government passed the law anyway.

To read our coverage of France's burka ban click here

Sarkozy himself wants to take the fight against the burkini and other Islamic dress further.

"Wearing a burkini is a political, militant act, a provocation," he said in an interview with Le Figaro magazine to appear Friday.

"If we don't put a stop to it, there is a danger that in 10 years young girls of the Muslim faith who don't wear the veil or the burkini will be picked on and come under pressure from those around them."

In the interview, Sarkozy, who is standing to become the mainstream right candidate in next year's presidential election, proposed to extend the ban on Muslim headscarves from schools to universities, the civil service and businesses.

Australian muslim swimming instructor Fadila Chafic wears a burkini during a swimming lesson with her children Taaleen (L) and Ibrahim in Sydney
Australian muslim swimming instructor Fadila Chafic wears a burkini during a swimming lesson with her children Taaleen (L) and Ibrahim in Sydney Reuters/Jason Reed

Cazeneuve meets Muslims

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve assured one of France's Muslim groupings, the CCIF, that the bans shold not lead to stigmatisation at a meeting requested by the organisation on Wednesday.

But, especially after the publication of photos of a woman being ordered to take off a hijab on French Riviera beach, there are growing concerns among rights groups.

That woman, Siam, has said she will appeal against her 11-euro fine.The Anti-Islamophobia Collective group says it has taken up the cases of 16 women warned by police for wearing headcovering but not burkinis on beaches.

The woman who designed the burkini in 2004, Aheda Zanetti, has said the French authorities do not seem to understand what the garment is about.

She created it to allow Muslim women more freedom and to let them integrate into Australian society, she told the Reuters news agency.

Forty percent of her customers are not even Muslims, she said, and they include skin cancer sufferers and women who want to protect their skin from the sun.

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