SINCE LATE SUMMER, France has been gripped by a controversy of which Americans are trying to keep abreast. At issue is whether personal liberty extends only to the action of revealing, not covering one’s person — and, indeed, if public liberty requires banning from view those who believe otherwise?
In a word, does a naked breast a republic make?
“Mais oui!” believes Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister. In a speech last month, he recalled the Left’s long struggle on behalf of both republican rights and women’s rights. His open-collared white shirt damp from sweat, Valls vowed to a packed hall: “We will not compromise on the place of women in France.” Looking up from his prepared text, Valls invoked the name of Marianne, the female embodiment of the revolutionary ideal of liberty. “Marianne is shown with a naked breast,” he reminded the audience, “because she is nourishing the people; she is not wearing a veil, because she is free!” He paused, then exclaimed: “That is the Republic!”
The Republic, apparently, lies somewhere north of the ribs and south of the shoulders.
Baffled Americans might find this laughable; the French, not so much. Valls’s words fell at a particularly tense moment. In a nation polarized by the grinding debate over Islam’s place, traumatized by devastating Islamic State–directed or inspired terrorist attacks on French soil, and mesmerized by bleak images of ISIS propaganda leaching into their media, Valls had enlisted France’s most celebrated icon on behalf of his particular interpretation of republican liberty.
Tellingly, he did so just days after an event in Nice that had gone viral on social media. On August 24, dozens of bikini- and Speedo-clad vacationers in Nice stared — and occasionally cheered — as four policemen surrounded a beachgoer who, stretched on the sand, was clad in the so-called “burkini,” a full-body covering designed for Muslim women. Well armed and clearly alarmed, the gendarmes hustled the woman off the beach. Were they responding to a terrorist threat? In France’s hothouse atmosphere, this certainly seemed possible. After all, Nice, along with dozens of other seaside towns and cities, had recently passed a law forbidding swimwear that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are targets of terrorist attacks.”
France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, quickly overturned these local laws, but the controversy continued. Valls defended the anti-burkini laws, insisting the garment “was not compatible with the values of France and the Republic.” When an interviewer cited the indignant responses the laws had sparked in the Western media, Valls was unapologetic: “France is a different country. I don’t share the liberalism of Anglo-Saxon countries.”
Some critics in France, however, did not share Valls’s interpretation of Marianne. Her bared breast, they declared, had nothing to do with freeing herself or feeding others. On Twitter, the historian Mathilde Larrère rapped Valls’s knuckles: “Marianne’s breast is bare because she’s an allegory, idiot.” In the midst of the French Revolution, artists looked to past models to depict present-day ideals — in this case, they turned to Greek and Roman antiquity to give body to republican values.
As other critics suggested, Valls perhaps had in mind Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). If you haven’t stood in front of the massive painting at the Louvre, chances are you’ve seen images of it on France’s (old) 100-franc bill, various coins and stamps, the cover of a Coldplay album, and countless French history textbooks. Striding over a mound of the dead and dying, Delacroix’s Marianne — with a rifle in one arm and a French revolutionary flag in the other — leads a group of young Parisians across a smoky battlefield toward, well, toward a republican future. And, yes, her blouse is undone.
Unlike earlier renderings of Marianne, Delacroix’s version adds a dose of the historical to the mythical. Her partial nudity expresses an ideal of revolutionary purity, but her presence on a barricade of broken bodies also underscores the role played by women not just in the revolution of 1789, but also in that of Delacroix’s own time — the July Revolution of 1830. (Ashamed not to have fought in it, Delacroix was determined to paint it.) Not only did women tend to the wounded, but in at least one reported case that inspired Delacroix, they also took the place of the dead on the barricades.
But as French revolutions came and went — from 1789 and 1830 to 1848 and 1870 — women’s rights remained few and feeble. Marginalized by the Rights of Man and Citizen — the title of which speaks for itself — women were essentially transformed by the Napoleonic Code into wards of a paternal state. Marianne evolved to reflect this institutionalized fear of women: in statuary and paintings, she was now depicted with her blouse firmly buttoned, her hair carefully braided, and her behind solidly settled on a chair. Demure and decorous, Liberty was a good bourgeoise.
By the 1950s and 1960s, however, her blouse again began to loosen. Women were now claiming the legal and civic rights they had long been denied, and declaiming against the bourgeois values embodied by the earlier Marianne. In 1953, photos of a barely bikinied Brigitte Bardot signaled, as powerfully as Delacroix’s painting had a century earlier, the simmering cultural and political scene in postwar France. In fact, in 1969, the year after this pot-bouille burst into the revolutionary “événements de mai 1968,” Bardot became the official model for Marianne, with busts of her face and mostly uncovered breasts adorning municipal and state offices.
As history would have it, the beach where the young Bardot was photographed, Cannes, was also the first town this summer to issue an anti-burkini ordinance. As justification, the Cannes authorities declared that the burkini violated the secular basis of the French constitution. Yet, as a growing number of French Muslim women insist, they too are battling, like Marianne, for the same rights guaranteed by the secular republic. In a recent interview in madmoiZelle.com, Hawa N’Dongo, a Muslim student at the University of Paris, dismissed the widespread conviction that Muslim women are compelled to cover themselves: “I don’t wear my scarf for men, but for God.” Her choice is rooted in the values of French secularism: “To claim the right to wear a headscarf is itself a form of freedom.” The research done by the sociologist Leïla Benhadjoudja reveals that N’Dongo’s perspective is the rule, not the exception. There is no correlation, she argues, between covering one’s hair or body and the dynamics of domination that might exist in a marriage or family. The claim that a veil signifies domination, Benhadjoudja concludes, itself smacks of paternalism.
The topsy-turvy consequences of this evolution are both heartening and worrying. Whereas Marianne — at least in her late 19th-century depictions — concealed her body to reveal her political and sexual subordination, her early 21st-century iteration conceals her body to reveal her political and sexual liberation. As the well-known feminist scholar and politician Esther Benbassa recently asked in the newspaper Libération, must we really measure a woman’s “emancipation by the shortening of a her skirt, or [regard] a woman’s nudity as a tool of her liberation?” While she does not deny that some Muslim women are compelled to cover their bodies, Western women in quest of impossible slimness are really no different: “We obey a diktat, deeply rooted in our minds, to please men.”
And yet, cultural stereotypes have a long life. Earlier this year, when designers like Dolce & Gabbana and H&M introduced lines of hijab-inspired gowns, Plantu, the celebrated caricaturist at Le Monde, published a cartoon depicting a young woman wearing a hijab, cinched at the waist by a belt of explosives, with another woman — unveiled, décolleté, and a tear welling in her eye — in the corner. Against a blood red background, the caption asks: “When will there be designer belts?” Though rightly slammed by critics as Islamophobic, the cartoon speaks to widespread fears that, on occasion, are thickened by actual events. Just last month, an attempt was made by three French Muslim women to explode a car filled with gas cylinders and parked near Notre Dame. Is it possible, as the well-known sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar suggested in an interview in Le Monde, that there is a growing convergence between Islamic jihadism and a very particular understanding of feminism?
Even if that is the case, an abyss lies between the worldviews of a Hawa N’Dongo and these female jihadists. The latter’s understanding of feminism is as distorted as their understanding of Islam. Yet it may well be that these women also see themselves as Marianne, killing on behalf of a concept of liberty that strikes us (rightly) as dire nonsense, but strikes them as real and true. The challenge now confronting French non-Muslims and Muslims — both those with headscarves and those without, those who pray and those who don’t — is clear. It is to disarm that particular Marianne through a politics of inclusiveness, not exclusion, and of a generous secularism that makes room for all citizens, and not only those properly dressed. Or undressed.
Photo courtesy of Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño.