French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned on Thursday against stigmatising Muslims, as a furore over the banning of burkinis grew with the emergence of pictures showing police surrounding a veiled woman on a beach.
Speaking after a meeting with the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), Cazeneuve said,”The implementation of secularism, and the option of adopting such decrees must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people.”
Dozens of French towns and villages, mostly on the Cote d’Azur, have banned beachwear that “conspicuously” shows a person’s religion — a measure aimed at the full-body Islamic swimsuit but which has also been used against women wearing long clothes and a headscarf.
CFCM president Anouar Kbibech requested an urgent meeting with Cazeneuve after pictures emerged of a veiled woman sitting on a beach in Nice removing her tunic, watched by four policemen.
The images, which went viral on social media, were interpreted as showing the woman being pressured by police into removing the garment.
“We have seen images of police officers forcing a woman on a Nice beach to remove her tunic when she wasn’t even wearing a burkini,” the CFCM said indignantly.
Nice mayor’s office, however, denied she had been forced to remove clothing, telling AFP the woman was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her tunic, over a pair of leggings, when the picture was taken.
The police issued her with a fine and she then left the beach, the officials added.
The bans, which follow a string of jihadist attacks around France, including a massacre in Nice on Bastille Day last month, have sparked a heated debate about Muslim integration and French secular values.
While presented by the mayors as necessary to defend secularism and public order faced with rare sightings of burkinis on French beaches, police have also fined women for being fully clothed and having their heads covered, out of the water.
On Wednesday, a 34-year-old mother, who gave her name only as Siam, told AFP she was fined on the beach for wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf.
“I had no intention of swimming,” the woman, who was accompanied by her children at the time, said.
A witness to the scene, journalist Mathilde Cusin, said some onlookers had applauded the police and shouted at Siam to “go home”.