A French politician has threatened to file a lawsuit against anyone who shares photos or videos of police enforcing a ban on the burkini — the full-body bathing suit, designed for Muslim women, that has suddenly become a symbol of religious and social tensions in France. The statement comes after the widespread circulation of photos showing a Muslim woman removing her clothes in front of four male police officers on a beach in Nice.
Christian Estrosi, president of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and deputy mayor of Nice, said in a statement Wednesday that the photos “provoke defamatory remarks and threats” against police agents. He added that legal complaints have already been filed “to prosecute those who spread the photographs of our municipal police officers and those uttering threats against them on social networks.”
Nice, Cannes, and several other French cities have recently enacted bans against the burkini, with supporters arguing that the swimwear is not “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and that it poses risks to hygiene and security. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that the burkini represents the “enslavement of women,” while former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who announced his 2017 presidential campaign this week, described it as a “provocation” that supports radical Islam.
The argument for the ban rests, ostensibly, on the French principle of laïcité, which aims to keep religion out of the public sphere, and on the basis of gender equality. But critics say the burkini bans only serve to further stigmatize France’s Muslim population — the largest in Europe — at a time when tensions are running high following terror attacks in Nice and the northern city of Rouen this summer. The French feminist group Osez le Féminisme! excoriated the bans in a statement released this week, saying they serve only to humiliate Muslim women “on the grounds of sexism and racism,” and other rights groups have challenged the bans in court. France’s highest administrative court will hear a complaint on Thursday.
The photo that circulated this week was taken in Nice, and first published by The Daily Mail and The Guardian. In the image, taken by a French photographer, four male police officers surround the woman and appear to issue a fine. With the men still standing over her, the woman was photographed removing her long tunic top. The agency that released the pictures in the UK said in a statement to The Guardian that the woman was fined and left the beach, but the office of Nice’s mayor denied that she had been forced to remove her clothes, telling AFP that she was only showing the officers that she was wearing a swimsuit under her clothes. Notably, the woman was not wearing a burkini, but a long-sleeved tunic, headscarf, and leggings.
The legal basis for Estrosi’s lawsuit threats remains unclear. When reached for comment Wednesday by Numerama, a French tech blog, the mayor’s office could not provide a legal explanation for the complaints. As previously reported by Le Monde, French law does not prohibit citizens and media outlets from disseminating photos or videos of police, and officers are not allowed to seize cameras without a judge’s order.
“The position of Estrosi is very dangerous because it shows how people in power in France are completely disconnected from reality,” says Yasser Louati, a civil rights activist who has been an outspoken critic of French policies perceived to be discriminatory against Muslims. “If citizens cannot denounce unfair practices and the public humiliation of women, then who can?”
Rather than seeking to temper online outcry, Louati says Estrosi should “question the way those policemen behaved, and he should question himself.”
“Those pictures were shared because they expressed global outrage,” Louati adds. “So yes, I will definitely share them, and if he wants to sue me, be my guest.”