Last week we reported on the war waged by right wing French politicians over the Burkini - a bathing suit designed for Muslim women which covers the body from head to toe. French mayors stated that the article of clothing constituted a “serious and manifestly illegal infringement of fundamental liberties” (The Telegraph) a ban which was swiftly overturned by France’s highest administrative court.
In a shocking turn of events French Prime minister Manuel Valls has come under fire for implying that naked breasts are more French than a headscarf (Refinery 29). Since the ban was lifted Valls has clashed with numerous political figures over his belief that Muslim women should be stripped of the right to wear full body swimsuits. In a speech last Monday Valls implied that women who wear such garments are oppressed and that naked breasts are not only a symbol of liberty but of the spirit of France as a whole. When referencing Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People, Valls stated that the picture's central figure – Marianne “has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” (The Guardian).
Unsurprisingly historians, politicians and feminists have been up in arms over the comments. ‘Many pointed out that Marianne typically has her head covered with a Phrygian cap, a soft, felt hat that symbolised freedom and the revolution. She has been portrayed in different ways, either with breasts uncovered or fully covered.’ (The Guardian) Furthermore, other historians have noted that the image of Marianne with a naked breast harked back to classical allusions (Mathilde Larrere, The Guardian).
Historical inaccuracies aside, despite the UN describing the Burkini ban as “stupid” Valls’ embolden rhetoric is a sign that France’s battle over freedom of dress is far from over.