France — Covering too Much Skin Can Spell Trouble

In some French towns and cities, not showing enough skin at the beach can get you in trouble with the law. At the heart of the controversy is a type of swimwear called a birkini that is preferred by some Muslim women. The birkini covers a woman’s body completely except for her face, hands, and feet and sometimes daringly allowing her ankles and wrists to show. Calais is the best-know French city to have banned it.


Several beach-side towns and cities in France have banned the birkini in the name of laïcité or secularism, claiming that the birkini is a religious symbol. France has a strict law separating church and state, which paradoxically is often interpreted in such a way as to discriminate against certain religions, especially Islam. Secularism extends to the banning of religious symbols in certain contexts, although you are unlikely to be arrested for wearing a cross.

In many public places including numerous schools, women and girls have been banned from wearing a headscarf. When I was a kid in Western Pennsylvania, many women and girls wore headscarves, but we called it by its Russian name, babushka. We had no idea that they were committing a grave moral offense by covering their hair in this manner.

Strangely, for the rest of us, the French ban of the birkini means that the more skin a woman shows on the beach, the better. Until pictures started going viral on Facebook and the spread of American moral values, many French women sunbathed on the beach in a monokini, a bikini lacking the top, freely exhibiting their nipples to public view. Some French women still sunbath topless, and it is not viewed as a problem. In a TV interview, a Muslim woman defending the birkini protested that people even sunbathe naked on the beach.

Just how common is the birkini in France? Although I’ve seen women sunbathing topless there, I’ve never seen a birkini, and the mayors of some of the towns that have banned them admit that they have never seen one either. Nevertheless, they believe that they should stop this sinful behavior of covering too much skin before it becomes a trend, claiming that the Birkini interferes with public order, hygiene, and good morals as well as secularism. Many of us raised in other cultures have a hard time understanding why a woman is considered immoral if she covers too much of her body on the beach.

French prime minister Manuel Valls, otherwise a reasonably sensible politician, has called the birkina a political project to enslave women. Apparently Mr. Valls believes that the less clothing a woman wears, the less likely she is to be enslaved. Even if you accept Mr. Valls’ assertion that the birkini is a political statement, when did making a political statement in France become a crime? He also did not explain why prohibiting a woman from wearing a birkini makes her less likely to be enslaved.

What happens if you’re caught with too much clothing on at one of the French beaches that ban the birkini? Typically the police will write you a ticket, and you will have to pay a fine.

There are no birkinis or monokinis in the books I have written, but you can check some of them out by clicking on one of the cover images in the left sidebar. The few bucks that I receive from the sale of the books help to support this blog.