The French prime minister has expressed support for local bans on burkinis, saying the swimwear is based on the “enslavement of women” and therefore incompatible with French values.
The burkini, a wetsuit-like garment designed for Muslim women, covers the torso, limbs and head.
Three French Mediterranean towns have banned the garment on beaches this summer, citing security concerns.
Manuel Valls said in an interview published on Wednesday in the La Provence newspaper that the swimwear represented a provocation and an archaic vision that women are “immodest, impure and that they should therefore be totally covered. That is not compatible with the values of France.
“In the face of provocation, the nation must defend itself,” Valls said.
The government’s women’s affairs minister, Laurence Rossignol, took a similar stance.
“The burkini is … a particular vision particular of the place of the woman. It cannot be considered only as a question of fashion or individual liberty,” Rossignol said on Europe-1 radio.
Valls said, however, that he was not in favour of a national law against burkinis.
“I support those who have taken measures. They are motivated by the will to encourage social unity,” he told La Provence. “I don’t think we should legislate the issue. General rules on clothing restrictions cannot be a solution.”
France has some of the toughest legislation on headscarves in Europe, including a law passed in 2004 on religious symbols that bans girls from wearing the hijab in state schools, but no current laws ban anyone from wearing a headscarf or full-body bikini at a public beach. Wearing a burkini remains legal in France as a whole.
The former president Nicolas Sarkozy banned the niqab or full-face veil in all public spaces in 2011 as part of a law against anyone covering their face in public. The burkini, which covers the head and body for swimming while leaving the face uncovered, does not contravene that law.
Valls called for calm in Corsica, where clashes between villagers and three Muslim families broke out over the weekend.
Skirmishes at a beach in the commune of Sisco left four people injured and resulted in riot police being brought in to stop a crowd of 200 Corsicans marching into a housing estate with a high population of people of North African origin, shouting “this is our home”.
A police investigation is under way to determine the cause of the brawl. There has been no confirmation from police or the local prosecutor’s office as to whether anyone on the beach was wearing a burkini at the time of the incident.
Associated Press contributed to this report