SUZANNE HARRINGTON: My feelings towards France have become conflicted in the past year

I’m really browned off with France’s kneejerk attitude, writes Suzanne Harrington

Burkini Fascism might sound like a landlocked country in West Africa, but it’s much nearer than that. You’ve probably seen the shameful photo of that woman lying on a French beach, surrounded by policemen with guns, standing over her, ordering her to publicly disrobe. This same logic, as someone pointed out on Twitter, would have been banning Catholic nuns from wearing their habits during the IRA bombings of the Seventies. Insane, antagonistic, futile. Eye-wateringly misogynistic. And seriously off-target.

The beach where I spend every August is bang in the middle of this burkini ban coastline. Although too small and unimportant to register its own ban, it is surrounded on each side by the 30 towns that have decreed the all-in-one swimwear illegal. From Nice to Cassis, municipal cops have been patrolling beaches, scanning for women deemed too covered up. Humiliating and intimidating women — they do it in Iran, and now they do it in France.

Cue international French-bashing, as our liberte-egalite-fraternite neighbours once again confuse secularisme with racisme. Nul points, France. Even when the courts overturned the ban, quite a few mayors on the Cote D’Azur have dug their heels in, as though a tiny handful of women wearing burkinis on French beaches are connected with the hideous atrocities that happened in Nice and Paris. As though hammering the harmless will help. Kneejerk never works.

I like France. I am a white middle class secular European, and France likes me right back. For the past year, however, my feelings towards France have become conflicted. At the other end of the country, in grimy Calais, I have seen with my own eyes police brutality directed at brown people in the refugee camps. Seen kids sprayed in the face with tear gas. Refugees and migrants assaulted, their shelters crushed, their precious belongings destroyed. I have seen it, and it is horribly unkind.

And now Sarkozy – jingoistic, nationalist, intolerant – wants to be in charge again. He has no time for multiculturalism – he just wants everything to be French in that onions-and-berets kind of way from old movies. Assilimate or else. And yet the French North African Muslims remain second class citizens – that excoriating film La Haine (The Hate), set in the Paris banlieues, was released over 20 years ago; two decades later the racism it portrays is worse than ever. I like France for all the same reasons you do – food, culture, literature, landscape, road trips that go on forever. France likes me because I have the correct passport and the correct skin colour and I don’t cover up on the beach unless I am getting sunburned. Being a white tourist in France is to be part of a priviliged elite; being a brown citizen on a beach with not enough flesh on display is to be quasi-criminal. This cannot be right. Not for the individuals being harassed, not for communities of all beliefs and backgrounds, not for France itself. Come on France. You know better than that.


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