BECKET >> In my first summer as a full-time resident of France, I donned the $17 swimming trunks I had bought at my favored active-wear emporium, Pittsfield's T.J. Maxx, and headed for the beach. That would be Paris Plage, the strip of sand deposited every year along the banks of the river Seine for the comfort of stay-cationing Parisians. At the beach's temporary swimming pool, however, I was stopped by a guard. "Sorry, Monsieur," he said. "Your attire is unacceptable."
I thought he was referring to my frayed and faded 1998 Independence Day Run T-shirt, but he pointed instead to my brand-new American trunks. Too baggy, Monsieur. Unsanitary. Only the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, Speedo-like briefs are approved for men at France's public pools. I slunk away, blushing with humiliation.
This being Paris, a nearby vending machine dispensed regulation swimsuits, and a 10-euro note (then $12) later I was good to go. I still have this polyester relic, though I had forgotten about it — and France's obsession with swimwear — until now.
A global debate
As you have doubtless heard, 30-odd towns in France have banned the so-called burkini, which I first thought could be a new, lo-cal menu option at Hot Harry's Fresh Burritos. In fact, it is a full-body swimsuit. The name is a mash-up of "burqa," the enveloping garment worn by women in some Muslim countries, and "bikini," the female double-helping of what I was forced to wear at Paris Plage. The bans, sidetracked last month by a French court, have inspired a global debate over secularism, bigotry and women's rights.
While the navel battle rages, let me add a few insights from more than a decade as a Parisian. The French take this stuff seriously. The burkini — like the full-body burka and the head-only hijab — have become symbols of the perceived refusal of some Muslim immigrants to integrate into French society. And that society is flesh-forward when it comes to sexual mores: many French beaches don't even require a bikini's top half.
Moreover, France is aggressively secular: though most people are Catholic, the state doesn't keep statistics on religion. So nobody really knows what fraction of the population is Muslim (probably 7 or 8 percent). Moreover, the burkini and its dry-land equivalents are seen as symbols of repression — punitive coverings imposed on Muslim women by men and their medieval religion.
I don't buy it. For one thing, the burkini bans are aimed only at Muslims. Unaffected is the draping of nuns, Hasidic Jews, people with sensitive skin or any man in a wetsuit. For another, face-covering burqas and hijabs are illegal in France, and face-visible versions are worn by maybe one Muslim woman in 1,000. When asked, many of those say they are simply more comfortable in traditional dress. (I sure am; that Speedo chafed.)
Younger ones say they like to freak out their parents, as my kids once did. Even non-wearers say they don't feel welcome to integrate into French society no matter how they dress. Anyway, shouldn't people be allowed to make their own fashion choices?
Burkini fever seems to be less about fashion than fear — and domination. Following the recent terror attacks in Paris and Nice by Muslim extremists (curiously, none wore burkinis), many French are angry at Islam and wary of a large and potentially dangerous group of migrants who appear so — un-French.
What is "French"? Despite mountains of books on that subject (including mine), consensus remains as elusive as on-street parking in Paris. The essence of France is variously defined as secularism, democracy, liberty, equality, culture, fine cuisine and Serge Gainsbourg (look him up). Also — alarmingly and increasingly — native-born whiteness and Christianity. This latter duo may be the driving force behind the burkini brouhaha. The south of France, where the bans are concentrated, is a stronghold of the nativist, anti-immigrant National Front. Local officials accommodate this group, which has been rising in the polls.
The burkini obsession is also a manifestation of the age-old male impulse to dominate women through clothing. It's no coincidence that instruments of torture like the whale-bone corset, the high-heeled shoe and, yes, the bikini were invented either by men or for their viewing pleasure. The burkini, tellingly, was created by a woman, a Lebanese-born Australian.
So when I saw the now-famous photos of armed French police (male, of course) forcing a woman at a French beach to remove her burkini-like top, I was transported back to a certain morning at Paris Plage when I too was a newcomer singled out for humiliation. Allons, enfants de la patrie. Don't let the burkini bigots win.
Donald Morrison, a writer and lecturer who lives in Paris, Miami and Becket, is the author of "The Death of French Culture."