The Burkini Kerfuffle: Secularism vs. Liberalism in France

In summers past, news stories about swimwear on French beaches would turn up only in fashion magazines or the Style sections of major newspapers. This summer is different, thanks to the kerfuffle going on over “burkinis.” News of it is hard to avoid.

This is understandable: it is a man bites dog story.

For one thing, enforcers of “public decency” normally go after women who dress immodestly, not women whose garb is deemed too modest to wear in public.

For another, there is the French angle.

American “soft power” is ubiquitous in France, but France is still a more decorous country than the United States.

Nevertheless, on norms governing women’s swimwear, the French have long been more risqué. They pioneered bikinis, and they were first with topless bathing suits; America isn’t there yet.

In the French view, the reigning principle for decent attire on public beaches is, and long has been, laissez-vivre. If that entails showing more skin than on beaches elsewhere, the French were fine with that – provided, of course, that genitals aren’t exposed. In France as in other countries, to swim entirely in the buff, one had to go to a nude beach.

To Americans and, I suspect, to most people around the world, it would seem odd for wrangles over what women wear on beaches to lead to reflections on national identity or to raise deeper questions of political philosophy.

But, when it comes to over-philosophizing, France, not America, is the “exceptional” nation; so exceptional that the attention the French are lavishing upon the Burkini Question seems almost normal.

French intellectuals used to sneer at America’s puritanical norms; many still do. We owe them for that: their perspective was useful for revealing how puritanical attitudes and a consumerist culture driven by sexualization reinforce one another.

In France, it was commonplace to attribute that peculiar combination of prudery and prurience that seems normal to Americans to the country’s Puritan past, and, more generally, to the Protestant foundations of “Anglo-Saxon” culture.

The French could pride themselves on being more worldly, but they could hardly overlook the fact that they were not immune from puritanical ways of thinking and acting themselves.

According to the accepted view, the Catholic Church was the villain there. Its cultural impact was generally thought to be less severe because, in practice, the Church, with its ties both to a decadent landed aristocracy and to an earthy, tradition-bound peasantry was more tolerant of human appetites and passions than the worldly ascetics who embodied what Max Weber called “the Protestant ethic.”

Moreover, the French Revolution long ago diminished the Church’s ability to shape popular attitudes or to direct public policy. It made secularism the French state’s civil religion.

The prevailing understanding therefore was that the proper French attitude towards swimwear and related matters is, and ought to be, je m’en foutiste; in other words, that nobody should give a shit.

Now, all of a sudden, the world has learned that this is not the case; that the authorities care, and so, according to polls, do a majority of French citizens.

They care enough that even when the Conseil d’Etat ruled the burkini ban “unconstitutional,” their ruling was widely and popularly defied. This would be like American municipalities defying a ruling of the Supreme Court.

In a secular republic, governed by the rule of law, this is not supposed to happen. Yet it did.

Again, man bites dog.


There is more to the story than that, however.

For at least two reasons, this summer’s news from French beaches strikes a chord that no ordinary novelty news item could.

There is, first of all, the tension between the ways that the republican purchase on liberty, equality and fraternity (sic) connects with feminist views of those values and ideals.

We can thank the French Revolution and the philosophical ferment that preceded it for the fact that, at least in theory, in France and elsewhere, including the United States, there is widespread support for the idea that as citizens “all men are created equal.”

And women? Therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. In even the most Enlightened quarters of eighteenth century Europe and North America, hardly anyone would have said or thought that gender differences don’t matter.

Nowadays, nearly everyone would say it – not because everyone really believes it or acts accordingly, but because blatantly sexist language has become passé. This represents progress of a sort: at some level, there now is, in all the world’s liberal democracies, nearly universal verbal support for a non-gendered notion of equal citizenship.

But some things don’t change. What the ideal, gendered or not, entails remains contested.

In the republican view, equal citizenship entails equal treatment by state and societal institutions, with no allowances made for the kinds of differences that drive identity politics in the world today.

Well, almost. Where women are concerned, even the most doctrinaire republicans allow for gender differences. The French inscribe “liberté, égalité, fraternité on their public buildings, but vive la différence has always been a fact of life and law in France, just as it is in the United States and in other liberal democracies shaped by Enlightenment thought.

Not all differences, it seems, are created equal.

There are, of course, feminists who only want what the republican ideal, shorn of its gender-based exception, seems to imply. They are in the minority, however; most feminists celebrate the differences that republicans, despite themselves, concede.

Those who tend to side with republican thinking would be more likely to support a ban on burkinis than those whose views are shaped by identity concerns. But the situation is complicated, and it would unwise to draw hasty conclusions.

All feminists want freedom from patriarchal domination; this concern effectively defines the feminist worldview.

And it plainly militates against state prohibitions of burkinis on beaches, at least insofar as the French state, like states everywhere, is imbued with deeply rooted patriarchal characteristics.

There is another feminist consideration that bears on the Burkini Question: the demand that state and societal institutions respect women’s dignity.

To most Westerners, the idea that women should don special garb to hide their bodies from what French feminists call “the male gaze” seems an obvious affront to that principle.

However, women who actually wear burkinis on beaches claim that the opposite is the case. They say not only that burkinis make them feel secure, but also, by desexualizing their bodies, that they enhance their sense of themselves as persons, not things.

Perhaps they are deluded. But not taking them at their word – treating them like children, unable to speak for themselves or to represent their own values and aspirations – is demeaning too. It is paternalism, pure and simple.

The arguments for and against burkinis on beaches therefore pull in several directions at once, giving rise to tensions that can hardly fail to upset anyone who shares the stereotypically Gallic need for clarity and coherence.

According to a related stereotype, rife in France, “Angle-Saxon” cultures are more tolerant of muddles.   But even from an ostensibly less demanding American point of view, the situation is disconcerting too.

Psychologically, the timeworn way to deal with intractably unsettling states of affairs is through denial. The public policy analogue is avoidance. Very often, the best way to render potentially troubling incoherencies benign is not to make an issue of them.

But burkinis on beaches are too in your face for that to be a feasible way out.

This is why the Burkini Question has struck a nerve. It has exposed contradictions that republicans and feminists both have labored to suppress – not deliberately, but out or psychological and political necessity.

Even so, the fact that burkini clad Muslim women raise more problems than the tattooed, pierced, and nearly naked female bodies that populate those same beaches is, to say the least, peculiar.

Would those problems have come to the surface at all, but for the fact that the women wearing burkinis are Muslims? The question answers itself.

To be sure, French republicanism does take the exclusion of religion from public life seriously. But can anyone honestly deny that, in the French view – indeed, in the view of most Westerners – Islam merits exclusion more than the others?

Plainly, burkas, and therefore burkinis, are more troubling to French republicans — and to people in other countries who sympathize with them — than crosses or yarmulkes or Buddhist prayer shawls. And despite what some of them may say, the reason has nothing to do with concern for the dignity of women and girls.

The reason is Islamophobia.

This too is why the news value of the burkini story goes far beyond its man bites dog aspect.

I cannot say for sure because, as far as I know, it has never happened, but I would wager that were, say, Amish or Old Order Mennonite women, also wearing modest attire, suddenly to appear on beaches in Nice or Cannes that it would not occur

to anyone to insist that they dress (or undress) like everyone else, or that they be fined if they do not.

They would more likely be welcomed, as tourists with unusual needs and tastes generally are, than condemned for undermining the secular foundations of the French state.

In short, the French have problems with burkinis because they have problems with Muslims.

With the possible exception of a few fanatical secularists, and despite what defenders of the burkini ban say, religion is not the problem; Islamophobia is.


Islamophobia is a problem in the United States too, as it is in every historically Christian country.

But the problem registers differently in the American context – for reasons that harken back to the ways that French prudery, when it surfaces, differs from the kind found in the United States and other historically Protestant countries.

Revolutionary France was never militantly atheist; French revolutionaries were militantly anti-clerical. That militancy is, by now, ancient history; Church and State long ago settled their differences. But opposition to clerical rule – secularism (laïcisme) – survives. It is a cornerstone of France’s republican heritage.

It is also the bedrock principle upon which religious toleration in French law and society rests.

This is what “secularism” French-style comes to: it is a political doctrine that upholds a vision of the good society as a political order liberated from the authority of a clerisy that claims a right to govern some or all aspects of public life.

That claim is not based on the consent of the governed, but on historical and theological grounds that only true believers deem relevant.

Religious authority in Muslim countries is more diffuse than in Catholic Europe, but, notwithstanding this difference, secular political movements in the Muslim world are similarly motivated. It was the same with the Zionists who founded the state of Israel, and with secularists there today.

Without a dominant clerisy to break away from, there can be states organized on secular (non-theocratic) principles; the United States is one of many examples. But secularism, an inherently anti-clerical ideology, would be unthinkable.

Religious toleration in the United States and other historically Protestant countries arose within just such a context. The debilitating consequences of the wars of religion that the Protestant Reformation precipitated played a far more significant role in its emergence than struggles against clerical authorities.

Within the Protestant ambit, there was not one, but many “true” Churches, competing not just with Rome, but also with each other. None of them were powerful enough to dominate large territories or populations; and so, none of them could definitively prevail.

Instead, the various sides fought to exhaustion – agreeing eventually to accept diversity, if for no other reason than to end debilitating turmoil and bloodshed.

In time, philosophers and political leaders made a virtue of this necessity; and what began as a grudging acceptance of irreconcilable differences metamorphized into a celebration of diversity.

From that point on, proponents of political equality could hardly fail to make allowances for all sorts of differences, gendered and otherwise.

But it was not just a matter of adding on exceptions to the republican ideal. As the metamorphosis transpired, a different way of thinking about tolerance emerged.

This has only become clear lately, thanks to developments within academic political philosophy in the English-speaking world. How ironic that the French, with their penchant for philosophizing everything, don’t see it or, if they do, don’t fully realize its implications!

This is especially ironic inasmuch as the French Revolutionary tradition championed not only republicanism and secularism, but also liberalism, a political theory that had been developing in tandem with the capitalist reorganization of Western European societies – in the Netherlands, the British isles and in France itself — for at least a century and a half before the founding of the French republic.

“Liberalism” has so many, barely related meanings that looking for a common core can seem like a fool’s errand. What the word means in philosophical contexts has very little to do with the ways it has been used, for example, in American politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

For political philosophers, the word denotes theories of limited sovereignty – of principled limitations on what political authorities can rightfully do; or, what comes to the same thing, on what immunities individuals ought rightfully to enjoy from state interference.

French Revolutionaries and their immediate successors understood “liberalism” in much the same way.

In general, but in the English-speaking world especially, theories of limited sovereignty were of a piece with defenses of religious toleration. For the first liberals, limiting the sovereign’s right to interfere with religious beliefs and practices was the first order of business – along with the removal of mercantilist restriction on commerce and other impediments to capitalist development.

And so it was that long before French republicans developed a secularist ideology, there were liberals who sought to strip membership in religious communities or congregations of political significance.

Under their aegis, the idea emerged that religious convictions and practices ought to be matters of private conscious only, over which the state and what John Stuart Mill called “the moral coercion of public opinion” had no dominion.

Secularists support this understanding too, but for a different reason.

For them, freedom from religion – or, rather, from clerical rule – is a core attribute of the good society. A good society is a liberal society; and a liberal society is one in which religious convictions and practices are of no political consequence, and therefore have no place in the public sphere.

What English-speaking political philosophers have come to realize, though, is that, on this understanding, liberalism – and therefore secularism, as French republicans understand it — is a religion too, a non-theistic one.

More generally, it is a “comprehensive doctrine” grounded in a particular, reasonable but not incontrovertible, conception of the good – just like the more conventional religions for which liberals have always demanded fair treatment.

Viewed in this light, secularist opposition to burkinis – and, more generally, to religious symbols and religiously inflected garments in public spaces – is based on sectarian, not liberal, principles.

How ironic that secularists promote liberal values and practices, but in an essentially illiberal way!

The secularist vision of a good society may be better, for any of a variety of reasons, than religiously grounded conceptions; I firmly believe that it is.

But unless secularist quarrels with theistic religions – with complex and many-faceted comprehensive doctrines and systems of practice — can be conclusively settled in the secularist’s favor, the only truly liberal thing to do is to retreat to the default, laissez vivre position that one would have expected the French to support all along, at least on matters pertaining to swimwear.

In principle, evidence-based reasoned arguments can definitively resolve disputes in the sciences. But, in free and open societies, there will always be fundamental disagreements over, for example, visions of ideal social and political arrangements. In these circumstances, the liberal thing to do is to endorse public policies that do not coercively impose or proscribe contentious, but nevertheless reasonable (not wildly delusional or socially pernicious) doctrinal positions on those who do not share them.

Therefore, if Muslim women want to wear burkinis on beaches, let them.

If republican secularists don’t like it, then, as Mill put it in On Liberty, they can “remonstrate” with burkini clad women or seek to “persuade” or otherwise “entreat” them, provided they do so non-coercively. But, to be true to their liberal convictions, they must not “compel” them or otherwise “visit” them with any “evil,” if non-coercive methods fail.

Moreover, on the Burkini Question, others have no business meddling anyway – or, at least, that is what one would expect people to think if they are not just following liberal rules, but have also internalized liberal values.

If agents of the French state, and the citizens who support them, want to make it their business nevertheless, and if non-coercive means of persuasion fail, their options are these:

-they could insist on visiting evils upon women in burkinis — in which case they would be as illiberal, and as out of accord with the spirit, if not the letter, of the secularism they uphold, as the women whose views they refuse to respect;

-or they could just get over it.

For philosopher-citizens, dedicated to the liberal values the French Revolution brought to the fore, it is obvious which the better choice is.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).