France might fear terrorism but why does it regard the burqini with trepidation?


burqiniThere’s terrorism and then there’s the burqini.

Which does the French voter fear more? Does he/she conflate the two in the manner favoured by the far-right Front Nationale candidate Marine Le Pen?

Back when the first all-candidate French presidential debate was held, there was all that talk about the burqini.

As the BBC’s story put it at the time, Ms Le Pen and centrist Emanuel Macron clashed over the full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women. Ms Le Pen said France should oppose multiculturalism, but was accused by Mr Macron of making enemies of Muslims in the country.

As she has consistently tried to do, most recently after the Thursday, April 20 attack on policemen at the Champs-Élysées, Ms Le Pen is turning up the fear factor.

It is having an effect, though quite how much we will know only after the results of the April 23 first vote are in.

Of course, France is not the only country that fears Islamification.

With elections coming up in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel too has had to pronounce against the burqa. It’s interesting how similar the Germans and the French sound on the burqini and what it symbolises.

Last summer, France’s then prime minister Manuel Valls said the burqini is “not compatible with the values of France and the republic.”

Roughly around the same time, Mrs Merkel spoke up about the burqa: “From my standpoint, a fully veiled woman scarcely has a chance at full integration in Germany.” Her interior minister Thomas De Maizière added: “The burqa doesn’t fit with our country and does not correspond to our understanding of the role of women.”

What were these politicians really saying?

  • That the perception of dominance of conservative Muslim values is disquieting for European countries?
  • That they need to be seen to be doing something real and tangible to reassure their domestic populations?
  • That they would hope and expect that European Muslims would want to recognize where they are – in Europe, not in Kandahar or in Peshawar – and do everything possible to become one with their adopted society.

Is any of this objectionable? Remember the burqini looks a bit like a wetsuit and may be rather unaesthetic, but is otherwise hardly a garment that should inspire fear.

That it does, points to something deeper  – Europeans’ fear they are losing cultural control at home. That is the context of the rise of right-wing populism in countries as disparate as Austria, France, Hungary and Poland.

As Daniel Gros, Director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, recently wrote, “Now, populists are focused not on what the EU does, but what it represents. Instead of asking whether the EU is making people richer or poorer, populists are focused on a more fundamental and powerful question: ‘Who are we?’”

This, Mr Gros points out, is hardly surprising at a time of large-scale immigration to societies that have long defined themselves according to shared background and culture. They must “now struggle with the implications of multiculturalism. That is why most observers of populist parties, especially of right-wing parties, have focused on attitudes toward foreigners and minorities.”