French prime minister Manuel Valls poured oil on the burkini swimsuit controversy when he lauded a bare-breasted symbol of the French Republic and declared that she is “not veiled, because she is free.”
Valls appeared to be referring to Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” a painting that commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 and depicts the goddess of Liberty, also known in France as Marianne, partly naked and holding the flag of the French Revolution as she leads people over the bodies of the fallen.
“Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” Valls exclaimed at a government rally on Monday.
The minister’s comments followed a French court’s overturning on Friday of a ban on the wearing of the full-body swimsuit known as the burkini — a portmanteau of “bikini” and “burqa” — that some Muslim women wear to cover their bodies for reasons of modesty.
Some 30 French municipalities had banned access to public beaches “by anyone not wearing proper attire, which is respectful of good morality and the principle of secularism and not respectful of the rules of hygiene and bathing security” — meaning more revealing swimsuits.
Politicians, historians and feminists criticized and poked fun at Valls’s suggestion that the exposed female chest symbolized France more than Muslim attire.
“Marianne has a naked breast because it’s an allegory, you cretin!” tweeted historian Mathilde Larrere in one of a series of tweeted comments on the subject.
Others pointed out that Marianne has been featured with breasts both bare and covered.
Many resort towns, among them Nice, have meanwhile vowed to continue to fine women wearing the burkini, in defiance of the French administrative court’s overturning of the ban, which legally applies only to the Villeneuve-Loubet region.
In a ruling welcomed by the UN and French Muslims, the court had ruled that local authorities could only introduce measures restricting individual freedoms if wearing the swimsuit on beaches represented a “proven risk” to public order.
AFP contributed to this report.