Thursday, September 1, 2016


Following the recent burkini controversy in France, the Conseil d'Etat (highest administrative court) has suspended the burkini ban in the Riviera resort of Villeneuve-Loubet whose mayor had prohibited the full-body swimwear because he considered it a provocation and a threat against the public order. The administrative court found no proven risk to public order and ruled that the ban was a serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms a legal decision that sets precedent in all those French communities where the burkini was banned this past month, some 30 in all.

This should have put the issue to rest, but neither the mayors in question nor a number of pro-ban politicians (including prime minister Manuel Valls and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy) were willing to let the matter drop at a time when politicians are testing the winds and polishing their message to fit the country's mood prior to the presidential primaries in November. A recent poll shows that 64 percent of the French people are in favor of a ban on the burkini. Sarkozy, head of the center-right opposition party Les Républicains, has already announced that, if elected, he will change the constitution to allow for a burkini ban and that he will toughen the immigration laws. He is sounding more and more like the extreme-right, anti-immigrant, Front National party of Marine Le Pen, which is expected to do well in the elections, picking up votes from a disenchanted left as well as from a fearful electorate running for cover from islamic terrorism.

The governmental overreaction to a minor burkini incident on a public beach has, once again, shone a spotlight on a peculiarly French tendency to complicate life and lose control of the issue in question. The sacrosanct French principle of secularism (laïcité) used by local authorities to ban the burkini does not apply to public beaches, and its wearers (few and far between) do not pose a recognized threat against public order. But a jittery population, traumatized by repeated islamist terrorist attacks, is easy prey for opportunistic politicians who prefer to fan these fears for their own political gain rather than to send a unifying message to its pluri-ethnic citizens, nearly 10 percent of whom are Muslim. This immigrant group, mostly from former French colonies in west and north Africa, lives largely in the urban ghettos called cités, where petty crime and high unemployment are endemic and where the unemployed young are tempted into islamic radicalization. Efforts to improve the integration of this population into the French mainstream have been timid at best, and today's unnecessary burkini fight only drives a further wedge between "them and us".

If the burkini has become the hot topic of the season, it has not only divided public opinion but the socialist government as well, where two female ministers (Education, and Health) took prime minister Manuel Valls to task over his pro-ban position and warned of a danger of unleashing racist rhetoric and stigmatization at a time of tension.

When the ban that began in Cannes in early August spread to 30 other coastal communities, including one in Corsica following a violent fight between three Muslim families and a group of locals resulting in injuries, it became international news. And the foreign press was happy to take it on and teach France a lesson. While they couldn't understand what all the fuss was about, the foreign media interpreted the burkini ban as both racist and ridiculous. The absurdity of the situation was made painfully clear in a photo sequence shot by an English photographer that shows three armed French policemen forcing a lone burkini-clad woman on a public beach in Nice to disrobe or be fined a scene reminiscent of the "morals police" of theocratic Iran. 

Although it is proud to call itself the land of Human Rights, it is no secret that France has an anti-semitic streak. It also seems unable to see its Muslim population as equal citizens of the republic despite its lofty national motto of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality for all. Like in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. There is no doubt that the context of the recent terrorist attack that killed 86 people in Nice has created a volatile atmosphere and may have evoked an emotional response, but this does not justify the creation of any special laws, said the administrative court.

The burkini battle has also revived the French identity crisis which is never far from people's minds. Does the immigrant population from former French colonies in black sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb region of North Africa people who do not look like us, tend to dress differently from us, and have more children than us threaten our French identity? Can they assimilate into our society and adopt our way of life or to what point do we have to accommodate theirs? Frequent "clashes" indicate that there are no easy answers, but also show that assimilation has not been facilitated by government policy and that there are still many pockets of marginalized and disenfranchised immigrants in France, even if they have French citizenship.

While catholicism is still the main religion in France, the principle of secularism, voted into law in 1905, guarantees the free exercise of any faith and the state's neutrality in all matters of religion. Why then, I asked a friend one day, are there still so many official Catholic holidays in France? "Tradition," was his answer, which goes some way to explaining the fuzziness and confusion of so many French rules and regulations.

Tradition can also mean a fear of change, so palpable in France where change is often seen as a loss of something rather than a potential gain and to be resisted as long as possible. Hence, the rather perplexing fervor with which labor unions and socialists reject the right to open shops on Sundays. The weekly day of rest, rooted in the Catholic tradition, is turned into an obligation, a way to keep change at bay, even at the expense of those who voluntarily offer to work on Sundays in exchange for double pay. It may make France less competitive, but the idea of "protecting" workers from perceived exploitation, in other words, to keep things as they have always been, still prevails.

Schools are re-opening this week and politicians are flocking back to Paris, where the burkini will be slowly displaced by newer crises. Strikers won't be far behind, voices and banners will again be raised in the streets, and the whole diverse and complex world of French society will do its level best to keep it all together. It's the way it's always been.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


August is usually a month of relative calm in France. It's vacation time, even for angry demonstrators and politicians. Political or union organizers may be plotting as they bask on a sunny beach, but their actions are aimed at September when they'll re-emerge with the usual sound and fury in support of or in opposition to one cause or another. Not surprising then that during this summer vacuum a seemingly minor matter became headline news and grew into a divisive subject involving politicians, philosophers and human rights activists.

Bikini vs. burkini

It all began when the mayor of Cannes, at the request of some of his constituents, banned the burkini, the full-body swimwear favored by some Muslim women, from his beaches. His example was soon followed by mayors of other Riviera resorts, and to date no less than fifteen French mayors have banned the burkini in their communities.

Burkini brawl in Sisco, Corsica
Initially, the burkini ban in Cannes was seen as a local incident in the wake of the Bastille Day massacre of 86 people by an Islamist terrorist in nearby Nice that had left the town's people jittery and sensitive to all things Muslim. At the sight of burkinis in their midst, a sense of Muslim invasion took hold of the vacationing beach crowd who called on their mayor for action, sparking the beginning of a quickly spreading burkini ban that soon reached Corsica. Here, in the small coastal town of Sisco, an encounter between a group of teenagers and three local Muslim families of Moroccan origin degenerated into fisticuffs when one of the teenagers photographed a Muslim woman whose husband objected. One of the teenagers called his parents and soon 200 villagers stormed the local North African neighborhood with cries of "This is our home!" Riot police were called in and the beach brawl ended with four people in hospital, five others arrested, and a burkini ban in Sisco.

Suddenly, the burkini was no longer a local issue and was even picked up by foreign newspapers. Voices began to be raised for and against the ban, with pro-ban arguments ranging from "the burkini is unhygienic" to "not in line with our French values" and "a form of suppression of Muslim women by their men".

Marseilles beach where burkini is not banned
One may well ask Why unhygienic? - but perhaps it's best not to. One may also question the French Values, especially in matters of beachwear: topless women? string bikinis? big-bellied men in tiny Speedos? Let's not go there.  And as for the burkini as a form of suppression of Muslim women's choice of dress, this matter of cultural difference was perhaps addressed most delicately by the mayor of Nice when he said that he had banned clothing that "overtly expresses adherence to a religion at a time when France and its places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks." The July 14th mass killing in his city and the subsequent murder of a Catholic priest as he was celebrating Mass in his French village church had left raw wounds that have not healed yet. France remains cautious and on edge.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he could understand the mayors' decisions and came out in support of the burkini ban, saying the garment reflects the "enslavement of women", while Laurence Rossignol, French Minister for families and women's rights rejected the burkini as "archaic" and "intended to conceal the body of women".

With these views the Socialist party joined those of the extreme-right National Front party whose leader Marine Le Pen supported the burkini ban, saying "The soul of France is in question here. France does not lock away a woman's body; cover up half its population."

So much for political positioning in anticipation of the 2017 presidential elections, as an increasingly crowded field of presidential candidates is gathering both on the left and the right. After the devastating string of terrorist attacks on their soil, nervous French voters are looking for reassurance from a strong leader who can inspire confidence and a feeling of safety that is lacking today.

On the other hand, many support the right of a devout Muslim woman to wear the full-body burkini for bathing in public, even if it sets her apart from other bathers. Prohibiting the burkini would effectively exclude these Muslim women from access to the sea. The League of human rights (LDH) and the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) have filed an appeal with the Nice administrative tribunal to overrule the burkini ban because it goes counter the right to free speech, freedom of religion and choice of dress, and is disproportionate to the perceived threat it may pose. The tribunal is to rule before the end of the month.

Marks & Spencer ad
France is a secular country where all religions are allowed, but where since 2004 the wearing of "ostentatious signs of religion" is forbidden in public schools.  Another law, voted in 2010, forbids face coverings by full burqa or niqab, or by ski masks, in all public spaces, and this for obvious security reasons. Neither one of these laws would prohibit the wearing of a burkini on a public beach, nor did these laws encounter strong opposition from the large French Muslim population at the time they were passed.

Zanetti, inventor of the burkini

It is interesting to note that France's apparent distaste for the burkini in the name of its sacrosanct secularity contrasts sharply with the United Kingdom where popular department store Marks & Spencer has launched its own line of burkinis this year and rival store House of Fraser's has just responded with a competing line. In response to the French controversy, Aheda Zanetti, the Lebanese-born Australian inventor of the burkini says women buy her suit for different reasons (skin cancer, sun sensitvity, greater comfort than a wet suit) and that 45 percent of her clients are not Muslim. The burkini is all about choice, she says. Or as one of her clients put it: "It's just a swimsuit, for heaven's sake!" 

Considering where we stand today in France  an unpopular president who is perceived as weak; an extended state of emergency after repeated terrorist attacks; proven inefficiency and lack of cooperation among French security services it is easy to see why the relatively inoffensive burkini has become such a big issue this summer. It represents a facet of Islam, a subject that rightly or wrongly has created a certain nervousness among the French; it is a political plum, opportunely arriving just in time for use or abuse by the candidates in the pre-election activities beginning this fall; and it was the "only game in town" this summer. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016



Yes, again!  For the third time in 18 months, France was cruelly hit by terrorist violence. This time it happened in Nice, following its famous Bastille Day fireworks that draws thousands of people to the beautiful beachfront Promenade des Anglais on this most festive day of the year, July 14th. As the crowds were leaving the beach that night and walking down the wide traffic-free Promenade des Anglais, a truck suddenly barreled through a flimsy road barrier and bore down on them, swerving onto the sidewalks in a deliberate attempt to mow down as many people as possible. It left 84 dead in its wake, including ten children, and 202 wounded. Today, 121 injured are still hospitalized and 26 of them remain on life support. Sixteen of the dead have yet to be identified.

The driver, in a 19-ton rented truck, managed to continue his murderous assault for more than a mile before police finally brought him to a stop and shot him dead in an exchange of gunfire. He was identified as 31-year old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian national living in Nice and father of three young children. Fired by the same blind hatred as the Islamist extremists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, and the Bataclan concert hall and cafe terraces in Paris last year, Bouhlel appeared at first to be an angry loner driven to mass murder for sick, personal reasons rather than out of religious fanaticism.

Mohamed L. Bouhlel
According to Walid Hamou, his wife's cousin, Bouhlel did not attend his neighborhood mosque, drank alcohol, ate pork, was a notorious womanizer and did not observe Ramadan. He even smoked cannabis, Hamou said. Neighbors in his apartment building reported that he had a violent nature and was living apart from his Franco-Tunisian wife whom he was said to beat. Known to police for petty crimes and violence, he was given a six-month suspended sentence in March as well as a €1000 fine for road rage and hitting a driver with a wooden pallet, but he was not listed as a security risk because he was not radicalized. His father in Tunisia confirmed the violent behavior and said that his son had also been treated for depression.

Initially, the attack was not vindicated by any terrorist organization, but 36 hours after the incident ISIS suddenly claimed that Bouhlel was one of its soldiers who had heeded its call to kill as many infidels as possible by any means available. Given the late date of this claim, police suspected opportunistic propaganda but continued to investigate any possible link Bouhlel may have had with the Islamic State. They questioned his ex-wife and four other people with links to Bouhlel, some of whom said to have noticed a recent change in Bouhlel and thought he may have been radicalized very recently. Police have since released the ex-wife but are still holding six individuals, including the man who sold Bouhlel the gun he used in the attack when he shot at the police who tried to stop him.

As soon as the news broke and shocking eyewitness footage of the attack appeared, memorials of flowers, candles and teddy bears began to spring up in all major cities, with cries of condemnation or heartbreaking messages of shared grief. This one, left in front of City Hall in Aix-en-Provence, touched me deeply: 

May the tears we shed over Nice
cause fields of flowers to grow
and may their perfume soften the hearts of men
who lost their humanity.


President Hollande declared three days of national mourning, to end on Monday at noon with a minute of silence. As he and Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrived for the brief ceremony on the Promenade des Anglais that day they were booed by some of the 30,000 people who had gathered for this homage to the victims, and boos and whistles rang out again as they and their entourage left. Manuel Valls called the gesture "undignified" at this sad moment of reflection, but it was an undeniable sign of the distress felt by many at the apparent inability of this government to protect its people.

Promenade des Anglais, Nice
While all possible motives remain open, a picture of the assailant is slowly emerging of someone who is angry, depressed, alienated and violent. Experts say that heeding a call from ISIS may incite such a person to wipe his slate clean and become "someone" by slaying infidels in the service of the Islamic State's cause. Today we know that Bouhlel reserved the refrigerated truck ten days before the attack ("to deliver ice cream"), picked it up a week later and made several trial runs with it on the Promenade. The day before the attack he sold his car and emptied his bank account, knowing he was not coming back from the path he had chosen.

Whether Bouhlel was a deranged hothead or a recent IS convert, people are looking to their government for reassurance and solutions. With the memory of last year's terrorist attacks still fresh in their minds, as well as the solace and strength found in the extraordinary show of unity after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, such unity is totally lacking this time. Politicians of the opposition were quick to blame President Hollande for security gaps and inefficiency. With an eye on the upcoming presidential elections in 2017, and before the three-day period of mourning had even begun, political opportunists fouled the air with accusations against the president of incompetence, wrongheadedness and worse. In a measured but rather ineffectual response Hollande ordered another three-to-six-month extension of the current state of emergency that was to expire on July 26th, and announced the call-up of 12000 operational reservists to shore up the police and gendarmes.

Georges Fenech, president of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the terrorist attacks of last year, responded angrily that the commission's report had revealed a "global failure" of the government's security system and contained 39 urgent measures to be taken, including the immediate creation of a single US-style counter-terrorism agency regrouping all French intelligence services. Another key proposal was the improvement of the judicial and prison systems where many French jihadists have been radicalized in the past. Fenech criticized Hollande's extension of the state of emergency as ineffective, solving nothing and serving only to reassure.

Monday commemoration in Nice
After the brief memorial service in Nice on Monday, French Attorney General François Molins held a press conference that afternoon to announce that the ongoing investigation has found no evidence that Bouhlel was connected to ISIS or to any individual member of an islamic extremist organization, and that he was "self-radicalized" by means of ISIS propaganda sites on the internet. Analysis of his computer revealed that since the first of July he had been making almost daily searches of passages from the Koran and of jihadi islamist sites, including gruesome photos of torture and beheadings. He had consulted reports on the recent killings in Orlando and Dallas and had started growing a beard just a week ago which, according to someone who knew him, was a sign of religion.  

Bernard Cazeneuve, Minister of the Interior, stressed the difficulty of foiling a "lone wolf" attack and declared that no amount of added police or increased security could have prevented the tragedy in Nice. He also reminded us that the month-long Euro football championship had finished just days ago without major incident despite a threat of terrorism, and praised the security forces for their extraordinary performance during the state of emergency of the past eight months, during which time they prevented a number of terrorist attacks. They continue to be heavily solicited during the Tour de France which will end in Paris on 24 July, and the crowded summer festivals of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and elsewhere, none of which have been canceled except in and around Nice.

France is a prime target for terrorism given its role in the coalition that is fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, its continued presence in sub-Saharan Africa where its troops managed to drive Al Qaeda jihadists out of Mali in 2013, but also because of the poor integration of its North African immigrants who live mostly in suburban ghettos with high rates of unemployment and crime. This is fertile ground for islamist extremists who seek to recruit disenchanted, unemployed, youths for the IS training camps in Syria from where they return with a jihad mission to commit terrorist acts. Successive French governments have done little or nothing to promote better integration of this population, thereby weakening the cohesion of the French society and giving rise to xenophobic political parties.

The government needs to implement reforms, which at the best of times is a difficult task. As the Nice tragedy has again demonstrated, one of the most important and urgent of such reforms is the overhaul of the complicated, multi-layered system of the French bureaucracy which leads to excessive paperwork, duplication of effort, preservation of personal territory, missed signals between different services, and unacceptable delays in times of national emergency. Poor communication between national and international intelligence services has played a role in the terrorist attacks in Belgium and France. Have the lessons of past attacks been absorbed?

Clearly, drastic action is required immediately but the hardest thing to break is an old habit. Will France be able to respond quickly and act on the recommendations of its own parliamentary findings? Continued debate on this issue seems obscene under the circumstances. Perhaps a look at the mourners' messages may move the politicians to action if only out of shame.

A shocked and angry nation is expecting no less.

Our hearts go out to Nice