By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended a ban on burkinis in more than a dozen coastal towns on Thursday, saying France was locked in a "battle of cultures" and that the full-body swimsuit symbolized the enslavement of women.
Photographs of armed police ordering a Muslim woman on a beach in the Mediterranean city of Nice to partially derobe went viral on social media this week, upsetting many French Muslims and causing global consternation.
In a sign of rifts opening in the socialist government before a presidential election in 2017, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's Moroccan-born education minister, cautioned the debate was fanning racist rhetoric and being used for political gains.
"We have to wage a determined fight against radical Islam, against these religious symbols which are filtering into public spaces," Valls said in an interview on BFM-TV.
Reiterating his stance on the issue, he said: "For me the burkini is a symbol of the enslavement of women."
France's Conseil d'Etat, its highest administrative court, was due on Thursday to hear a request by a human rights group for the burkini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet to be overturned.
The debate over the burkini ban encapsulates the difficulties secular France faces as it grapples with a response to homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following Islamist attacks on Nice and a Normandy church in July, with security and immigration now central to the presidential election campaign.
Former head of state Nicolas Sarkozy, who joined the presidential race on Monday, told the Figaro magazine that France under President Francois Hollande had become too timid.
"The Burkini is a political act, a militant act, a provocation. Women who wear it are testing the Republic," he told the magazine in comments to be published on Friday.
In a demonstration of how the Burkini controversy has reverberated abroad, British author J. K. Rowling tweeted: "So Sarkozy calls the Burkini a 'provocation'. Whether women cover or uncover their bodies, seems we're always 'asking for it.'
France is not the only country where restrictions on burqas and niqabs are back in the spotlight, and debate on assimilation is raging, after a wave of militant strikes in Western Europe and an immigration crisis that has forced a rethink of Europe's open border policy.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives want a partial ban on the niqab, or face veil, while in Austria right-wing politicians have called for a ban on the burqa, which covers the face and body. In Switzerland there are calls for a popular vote on a ban on the burqa.
On a visit to Paris on Thursday, London's Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, condemned the ban, saying no one should tell women what to wear.
"I don't think it's right," Khan told the Evening Standard newspaper. "One of the joys of London is that we don't simply tolerate difference, we respect it, we embrace it."
ISLAMIC STATE AND THE BURKINI
The burkini has been banned by at least 15 towns from Corsica to the northern coast but most restrictions have been enforced in the southeast, an area where the far-right is strong and which is a gateway and home for many immigrants.
In Cassis, where the ban is in place, a beach-railing sign reads: "Because of the terrorist threat, the security forces and army are on a heightened level of alert."
Sunbathing on the beach below as the summer holidays wind down, one 30-year-old from the northern city of Lille who identified herself only as Karine branded the ban "disproportionate".
Vallaud-Belkacem said she opposed burkinis but dismissed the political argument that the ban was a useful tool in France's fight against militants.
"There is no link between the terror attacks of Daesch and the dress of a woman on the beach," Vallaud-Belkacem told Europe 1 radio, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
"The proliferation of bans fuels stereotypes and discriminates against a community," she said.
Valls on Thursday rejected the idea the ban might fuel sympathies for militant groups such as Islamic State by leaving some Muslims feeling further marginalized. But some government officials are worried.
One senior French government official warned that missteps would only exacerbate tensions heightened since a Tunisian drove his truck through a crowd in Nice, killing 86 people, and the murder of a Catholic priest in Normandy.
"We have several million Muslims in France who are mostly moderates or non-practicing. If they feel that it is the only subject in public debate they won't feel at home and will be tempted to withdraw to their communities," the official said.
(Additional reporting by Francois Rosnoblet in Cassis and John Irish and Michel Rose in Paris, Editing by Timothy Heritage)