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Ban politicians not burkinis | James Harrington

The burkini controversy that gripped France this summer has cast the country in an unhealthy, intolerant, light. The mayors of a few resorts implemented temporary bylaws banning people from wearing the full-body swimwear for reasons, they said, ranging from the secular to the sanitary – and included security for good measure. 

The local laws delighted Marine Le Pen, who leapt on the issue. Both prime minister Manuel Valls and women’s minister Laurence Rossignol gave their qualified support, even as they called for local authorities to ease community tensions.

Before this, the organisers of a private burkini pool party in Marseille had cancelled the event after death threats.

The story was picked up by news organisations all over the world and did nothing to boost France’s image overseas as the country feels the pinch of a dip in visitor numbers.

Is this country really so intolerant? By this standard, it would appear so. It is certainly difficult to defend against charges of Islamophobia levelled at it as a result. And yet, by many other standards, the French are generally as dis­interested in such matters as a ‘secular society’ should be.

It is hardly a scientific sample but one look at France’s current favourite personality list, an annual event here, suggests a different story.

At the top – for a second time – is Omar Sy, the actor son of West African immigrants, who grew up in the banlieues.

Jean-Jacques Goldman, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, is second. He is followed by Holocaust survivor Simone Veil – the first politician on the list and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the only one in the top 40. For the record,
former president and the son of a Hungarian immigrant Nicolas Sarkozy is the next politician, hobbling in at 48, just above current favourite to win the 2017 presidential election, Alain Juppé.

Rather than politicians, in the top 10 you will find two-time Olympic judo champion Teddy Riner, who was born in Guadaloupe and proudly carried the French flag in Rio; actor Jean Reno, who was born in Casablanca and is of Spanish descent; and Franco-Italian comedian Florence Foresti.

Others in the current top 50 include Moroccan-born comics and actors Gad Elmaleh and Jamel Debbouze, radio
personality Nagui, who was born in Egypt; Tony Parker, who hails from Belgium, has an American dad and Dutch mum; and noted Armenian Charles Aznavour.

The tennis star-turned-singer and son of a Cameroon footballer Yannick Noah has 11 honours to his name; while the Algerian ancestry of Zinédine Zidane has not stopped him being named France’s best-loved personality six times over.

What does this prove – apart from the unpopularity of politicians? Very little, except that most people apparently fail to notice race, colour, creed or religion until it is pointed out.

Sy is a hugely successful actor and comedian, as are Foresti, Elmaleh and Debbouze. Riner is an Olympic hero, and Simone Veil a respected political figure. Noah is a
popular singer and former tennis star, Zidane a World Cup-winning footballer. Aznavour is the French Frank Sinatra. Their family backgrounds are of little interest.

Politicians instituted these bylaws. Other politicians  backed them. Before then, most people did not notice
burkinis or even consider they may have been an issue.

Burkinis are not the problem – they are fundamentally lightweight wetsuits. There is no secular or sanitary reason to ban them (the ‘Speedo restriction’ for men, which dates back to 1903, is also based on quickly and easily
dismantled reasons of hygiene). Nor can burkinis, in all
seriousness, be claimed as a security risk. So, maybe we should outlaw politicians instead… Except Simone Veil.

This column was written by James Harrington, who has lived in France since 2009.

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