The ‘burkini’ debate in France: sowing the seeds of a pogrom mentality

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At a time when the French government has just extended the state of emergency to 2017, when an atmosphere of suspicion and fear is pressing hard on a population still feeling the shock of a series of terrorist attacks, a new  and highly demagogic ‘debate’ is reinforcing the current anti-Islam campaign. It’s been in the national headlines and has had considerable international coverage. We’re referring to the ‘burkini ban’ on a number of beaches. This retrograde controversy has engaged the whole political class, from local mayors in coastal towns to the highest state authorities, all of them, right and left, plunging their hands into the whole ideological mess.

At the beginning of August, ‘L’Association Islamiste des Soeurs Marseillaises, Initiatrices de Loisirs et d’Entreaide’ (a whole programme!) “privately hired a swimming centre for Muslim women to come to on 10 September. The advertising called for burkinis to be worn[1]. It was all the extreme right needed to display its customary paranoia and to denounce the “Muslim invasion of our country”. Following pressure from local councillors, who didn’t want to appear ‘lax’ in a region where populism and xenophobia are deeply implanted, the “Burkini Day” was quickly cancelled.

But on 12 August, the mayor of Cannes again blew on the embers by forbidding the wearing of the burkini on beaches, in the name of ensuring public order. Several mayors from the region, from Corsica and from Pas-de-Calais in the north, many of them products of the most right wing and demagogic of the right wing Republican party, also imposed the ban. By instrumentalising the wearing of the burkini, the French bourgeoisie is continuing its recurrent campaign on Islam[2], aimed at poisoning consciousness, dividing the population and accentuating nationalist propaganda.

The danger of pogromism

In a context where there is a growing dislocation of the social body, and in which the working class is presently not able to defend a revolutionary perspective, all sorts of irrational and sectarian tendencies are being reinforced. This dynamic is feeding fear, misunderstanding, xenophobic and racist prejudices, blind and obsessive hatred, on the part of ‘natives’ towards ‘foreigners’, and vice versa.

It was in this context that a scuffle broke out on 14 August in an inlet in Sisco, Corsica, between three families of Muslims, who according to the authorities wanted to “privatise” the beach, and part of the local population. This altercation, whose details remain rather vague, resulted the next day in an excitable demonstration of 500 people shouting slogans like “this is our home!”  This kind of event is unfortunately not new in Corsica : in 2015, in Ajaccio, there were several days of demonstrations which were openly xenophobic, with the public burning of books including the Koran, pillaging of Arab shops and other provocations.

This illustrates the danger of a pogrom mentality becoming commonplace at the very heart of capitalism. The present difficulties of the working class - even if it hasn’t entirely lost its capacity to resist, its capacity to revive its own revolutionary alternative - tend to undermine hope for a better world in the minds of many proletarians. In the absence of an understanding of the real nature of capitalist social relations and their inextricable contradictions, in the absence of any real perspective, the danger is that people look for scapegoats to blame for the miseries of this world. This reactionary approach, based on the chimerical quest to go back to the good old days when society was more harmonious, sees immigrants and those hardest hit by the crisis as troublemakers, as responsible for destroying the way things used to be.

Xenophobia is not something new in history, far from it. But what we are seeing in capitalism today is a tendency for the basest instincts to be unleashed, in words and actions. There is a real threat that looking for scapegoats can lead to the physical and mental destruction of sacrificial victims.

For the bourgeoisie, the rise of populism has shaken its electoral games and can go against its real political orientations (as with the rejection of the European Union and the single currency). At the same time it is seeking to manipulate the most disgusting retrograde ideologies in order to reaffirm its domination. This is the case with the polemic over the burkini. The state has not hesitated to fuel a false debate and stir up divisions through a hysterical media campaign. For or against the burkini ban, defenders of ‘women’s rights’ versus advocates of ‘Republican virtue’, arguments between the right and left of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie – all this serves only to reinforce confusion in the minds of the workers. The dangerous strategy of those politicians and state agencies who seek to ride the tiger of populism can only strengthen it in the long term. But while fanning the flames of hatred, the state can at the same time present itself as the guarantor of democracy and national unity (as with the Supreme Court’s ruling that the burkini ban was illegal). The working class has nothing to gain by getting drawn onto this swampy ground, which is a nationalist trap on all sides.

Capitalist society engenders alienation

The appearance of the burkini on the beaches is a very limited phenomenon[3], but it is also a tangible sign, like the spectacular rise of halal products and the wearing of the veil over the last few years, of the growing strength of religious obscurantism, which, far from giving meaning to life, is “at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people[4].

These garments are indeed straitjackets for women, who are often consenting victims to the bonds of dress but above all of ideology. But consenting to domination is by no means restricted to veiled women; it is a direct expression of the generalised, totalitarian alienation that pervades capitalist society and humanity as a whole. It is one form of the internalisation of the ruling social relations. At a time when science and technology have developed to unprecedented levels, the social relations of production incarcerate humanity in savagery and alienation. Both the burkini and the public humiliation, at the hands of armed police, of the women wearing it, who are treated like criminals violating the laws of democracy, provide us with a caricature of the sexual discrimination which the current ‘civilisation’ is incapable of abolishing. We can also see how the so-called ‘liberation’ of women from the 60s onwards has ended up insidiously reinforcing macho domination on a daily level. Wage labour transforms human beings into commodities, into sexual objects, into images for adverts, into anorexic manikins for luxury fashions – and all this is no less scandalous than the burkini. Obtaining rights and freedoms in capitalist society is a total illusion. The real principles of this society are terror, exploitation, and barbarism.

WH-EG, 30.8.16



[1] La Voix du Nord, 5.8.16

[2] When not talking about the burkini, the media are in a perpetual froth about the niqab, the burka, halal products and the building of mosques.

[3] At the time of writing, only about 30 women had actually worn the burkini on the beaches, most of them in response to the hyper-mediatisation of the ‘phenomenon’

[4] Marx, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.