To paraphrase Elvis Costello, what’s so funny about liberty, equality & fraternity?

Since the revolution of 1789, the national motto of France has been “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” which translated into English and updated to remove any sexism translates to “Liberty, equality, solidarity.”

French beach towns are making a mockery of all three concepts by passing laws that forbid the wearing of burkinis.

The New York Times reports that more than 20 French towns, mostly along the Mediterranean, have banned the burkini, which is a head-to-toes beach garment worn by devout Muslim women. The municipalities’ reasons for passing these bans sound as if they come directly from the America right-wing dictionary of racial code: the garments are not “appropriate,” not “respectful of good morals and of secularism” and not “respectful of the rules of hygiene and security of bathers on public beaches.”

Just reading these odious racist excuses gives me the same yucky, skin-crawling feeling I get from rolling around in sand immediately after applying greasy sunscreen. The reference to hygiene was especially nauseating, because it reminded me of the ugly things well-bred white Americans used to say—and sometimes still do—about African-Americans during the days of legal segregation.

A few comparisons demonstrate the absurdity of banning a modest garment that shows nothing of a sexual nature.

First, let’s compare the burkini to the standard swimwear in France in the late 19th century. They look practically the same, except for the head covering on the burkini. 150 years ago, French women would likely wear wide brimmed hats on the beach. Back then, if a woman dared to show up in a bikini or topless, the authorities would haul her to jail for public lewdness and immorality. By the way, every French Mediterranean beach I’ve ever visited has allowed women to walk around topless.

Now let’s compare the burkini to a wetsuit, which is still allowed to be worn on the beaches banning burkinis. Again, there seems to be nothing to distinguish the two from each other. A few days back on Facebook, I saw side-by-side photos of a burkini and wetsuit in the same sleek green and black color-combination and I really couldn’t tell much of a difference, even in the way the material covered the head.

Evidently the police of these towns are patrolling the beaches and asking any woman wearing a burkini to leave. By the way, if a man or woman wearing a wetsuit on one of these French beaches also sported a very large cross around her/his neck, the local constabulary would ignore it. Evidently a Christian cross in not a religious symbol, whereas wearing clothes that cover your body and a head covering is. I’ve seen 2016 photos of nuns wearing their habits on Italian beaches. Although the habit resembles the burkini in many ways, I doubt the police will be hassling nuns on French beaches this summer.

These bans make a mockery of the French ideals of liberty, equality and the solidarity between human beings encompassed in the word “fraternity.” The French towns are denying the Muslim women the liberty to wear what they choose. They are making the women and their religion less equal than other religions and cultures. And instead of embracing this group as part of the family of man, they are differentiating them from the mass of humanity and creating laws specifically meant to impede their actions. In the United States, we call that Jim Crow.

One rational for these laws is to ensure the security of bathers on the beach. Really? How does wearing a long garment threaten other bathers? Are the authorities concerned that every burkini could hide a machine guns and grenades?

Far from making bathers safer, these bans make all of French society less safe for two reasons: The banning of burkinis inflames the more radical among France’s Muslims and gives them an additional shred of evidence that the West hates Islam. The banning also encourages the French alt-right because it communicates to them that the authorities, at least in these localities, agrees with them that there is something wrong with Islam and that France should control and mistreat their Muslim citizens and immigrants.

As Elvis Costello pointed out in his 1974 song, there’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. If the French are serious about domestic peace, they should show a little love to its Muslim population and some understanding that the overwhelming majority of them are law-abiding citizens who only want to express their liberty and live in equality in a community that shows solidarity to all its members.


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