The French prime minister has drawn criticism for suggesting that naked breasts are more representative of France than a headscarf, in the latest flare-up of the bitter political row over the burkini.
Manuel Valls, who clashed with France’s education minister over his support for mayors who have banned full-body swimsuits from beaches, gave a rousing speech on Monday night in which he hailed the bare breasts of Marianne, a national symbol of the French Republic.
“Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” he thundered at a government rally.
The inference that bare breasts were a symbol of France while the Muslim headscarf was problematic sparked scorn from politicians and derision from historians and feminists.
Mathilde Larrere, a historian of the French revolution and French citizenship, tweeted: “Marianne has a naked breast because it’s an allegory, you cretin!” She then explained in a long series of tweets that images of Marianne with a naked breast harked back to classical allusions.
Other historians questioned Valls’ grasp of French republican history. The figure of Marianne officially became a symbol of the French Republic in 1848, after the fall of the monarchy. Her image is still featured throughout the French public service and on official documents, as well as on stamps. Statues of Marianne adorn town halls.
The historian Nicolas Lebourg told French newspaper Libération that Valls appeared to have confused Marianne with the earlier 1830 Delacroix painting of Liberty Leading the People, where the figure has her breasts uncovered.
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 former Green party minister Cécile Duflot said Valls’ praise of Marianne’s bare breasts gave an indication of the lamentable view of women held by some male French politicians.
The UN has called on French beach resorts to lift their bans on the burkini, labelling them a “stupid reaction” that did not improve security but fuelled religious intolerance and the stigmatisation of Muslims, especially women.
The UN human rights office welcomed a decision last week by France’s highest administrative court to suspend one of the burkini bans, ruling it “manifestly illegal”. This decision is likely to set a legal precedent. But most of the mayors who have banned burkinis are still refusing to withdraw the restrictions and four face further legal action from rights groups this week.
There has been additional controversy over the setting up of a state body, the Foundation of French Islam, aimed at better organising the religion in France and integrating the country’s Muslim population.
The choice of the former defence minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement to head the foundation left many observers asking why a Muslim was not given the role.