France’s conservative former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has branded the full-body burkini swimsuits worn by some Muslim women a “provocation” that he says supports radicalized Islam.
A series of local town bans on burkinis in France has set off a heated debate in the strictly secular country. Sarkozy says Wednesday night that “we don’t imprison women behind fabric.”
As a leading opposition figure, Sarkozy announced this week that he is running for the presidency again in next spring’s election. He must first win the primaries organized by the French right in November, where he’s expected to face tough competition.
Sarkozy said if he wins, he will ban every religious sign in French universities.
He is expected to campaign on a hard-line platform on immigration and security issues.
Some 15 French towns recently banned the burkini, triggering a fierce debate in France and elsewhere about the wearing of the full-body swimsuit, women’s rights and secularism.
While presented by the mayors as necessary to defend secularism and public order faced with rare sightings of burkinis on French beaches, police have also fined women for being fully clothed and having their heads covered, out of the water.
On Tuesday, French police ordered a woman to remove her burkini, as she lay on a beach in Nice, and in a separate incident, another woman was fined for covering up in a Muslim headscarf and leggings on a beach in Cannes.
Photos of the Muslim women on on French beaches surrounded by policemen caused a furor on Twitter, with the hashtag #WTFFrance becoming a top trending topic.
One of the world’s most secular countries, France strongly separates religion and public life, and overt religious symbols or clothing are considered incompatible with French values.
Islamic dress has long been a subject of debate in France, which was the first European country to ban the Islamic face veil in public in 2010, six years after outlawing the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.
Ordinary citizens are allowed to wear the headscarf in public.