[UPDATE: August 26 - The national gendarmerie has since admitted (via spokeswoman Maddy Scheurer on Twitter) that their actions were "clumsy", and that topless sunbathing is indeed allowed on the Sainte-Marie-la-Mer beach, and interior minister Gerald Darmanin tweeted that sunbathing topless was a "precious right" in France, and recognised the gendarmerie for "acknowledging its mistakes".]
The sunbather, in her sixties, was on the beach in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer (Pyrénées-Orientales, Occitanie) when a nearby family called the police.
The family said their children were shocked to see the topless woman, even though she was not the only one at the beach that day (Thursday, August 20).
Marie, a witness at the scene, told news source France 3 Pays Catalan the police then started asking other women sunbathing to cover up. She said: “I asked them if, in their opinion, sunbathing topless was a violation of decency. They asked me to move along and left the beach, just after I spoke to them.”
Topless sunbathing legal in France
There is no law against topless sunbathing in France.
It is not considered illegal under the law on indecent exposure, which is punishable by up to a year in prison and a €15,000 fine.
However, mayors in seaside areas do have the right to issue municipal decrees which ban women from wearing ‘monokinis’ (the bottom half of a bikini only). This is the case at the Paris Plages event in which fake-beaches are set up along Paris’ water ways in summer. Wearing a monokini at Paris Plages is punishable by a fine of €38.
The mayor’s office for Sainte-Marie-la-Mer has said no such ban is in place in its municipality. In a Facebook post it wrote: “A woman sunbathing topless is not a case of any violation of indecency or good behaviour. We have never asked the forces of order to intervene in this context.
"Indeed, the elected officials are very attached to the Republican principle of freedom. In addition, they confirm their commitment to equality between the sexes.”
La mairie de Sainte Marie la Mer communique: Suite à un témoignage relatif à une intervention de gendarmes réservistes...Posted by Mairie de Sainte-Marie la mer - 66470 on Monday, 24 August 2020
Police criticised on social media
Social media users have condemned the authorities involved, calling them the “morality police”.
One even compared the incident to the French film Le gendarme de Saint-Tropez (The Policeman from Saint-Tropez), in which an uptight police officer moves to the city on the Côte d’Azur and hatches a plan to arrest local nudists.
The comedy film was originally released in 1964, prompting the commentator to ask if “a space-time loophole” had opened on the beach in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer.
Topless sunbathing losing popularity in France
Topless sunbathing used to be commonplace in France, but a recent survey shows the practice is losing popularity.
Fewer than one in five women in France under 50 said they wear a "monokini", compared with 43% in 1984, according to a survey by Ifop published in July, 2019.
The survey, run in collaboration with French site VieHealthy.com, questioned over 5,000 women in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK on their sunbathing habits in April 2019.
French women aged 18-25 said they wouldn’t go topless as they were worried about being harassed, or their bodies being stared at or criticised.
French women of all ages cited the risk of sun damage as a major factor prompting them to cover up.
However, trends towards covering up on the beach only go so far. The burkini – a swimsuit often worn by Muslim women that covers everything but the face, hands and feet – is still a controversial garment in France.
Sixty-eight percent of French respondents to the survey said that it bothered them to see a woman in a burkini on the beach.