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Why did Cannes ban the 'burkini' from its beaches?

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(Read caption) In this August photo made from video, Nissrine Samali gets into the sea wearing traditional Islamic dress, in Marseille, southern France. The French resort city of Cannes has banned full-body, head-covering swimsuits worn by some Muslim women from its beaches, citing security concerns.

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Due to a new ordinance in Cannes, France, women who attempt to wear burkinis – full coverage swimsuits that cover the wearer's head, meant to comply with Muslim traditions of modest dress – will be asked to change or leave the beach.

Mayor David Lisnard, who issued the ordinance in late July, has said such attire is "the symbol of Islamic extremism, not of the Muslim religion," as CBS reports – setting up a potential conflict with the many Muslim women for whom burkinis are simply the beachside equivalent of conservative dress they would wear anywhere else. 

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The clash is particularly poignant this summer, as France reels from the July terror attack in another seaside city, Nice. That attack, coming less than a year after the Islamic State's November massacre in Paris, has fueled a new wave of questions about relations between French Muslims, who make up a greater percentage of the population than in any other European country, and their non-Muslim neighbors at a time when both feel on high alert. 

The Cannes rule forbids attire that is "not respectful of good morals and secularism."

"Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order," the regulations say, echoing fears of deepened religious tensions in the wake of the recent attacks. 

Critics say that instead of decreasing tensions, the Cannes measure could instead make things worse. Those who refuse to comply with the burkini ban will be forced to leave the beach and pay a 38 Euro fine, about US $42. 

Although the ban seems to have been crafted primarily to apply to burkinis, Mayor Lisnard told a local paper that it could also apply to Indian saris. Nevertheless, despite official claims that this ban could apply to various swimming costumes, Lisnard’s assertions that members of other faiths will continue to be able to display symbols of their religions, such as crosses, make it difficult to deny that this measure is at least partially targeted at Muslims.

"The policy is designed to exclude Muslims from public space and will only serve to further marginalize and alienate Muslims in French society," Maha Elgenaidi, the chief executive of the Islamic Networks Group, a US nonprofit dedicated to promoting understanding, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. 

A number of French media outlets have also questioned the ban, with Le Monde pointing out that while France does ban the veil, there is no precedent for this burkini ban. Others say that official claims that the ban is justified by the intent to “preserve order” seem questionable, while some predict a legal challenge could be on its way. France's Collective Against Islamophobia has announced its intentions to take the matter to court, as has the League of Human Rights. 

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Sefen Guez Guez, a lawyer for the Collective, has called the rule "illegal, discriminatory and unconstitutional," according to the BBC. 

France voted to ban wearing the veil in public in 2010, a controversial measure among many Muslims who view wearing the veil as an essential part of their religion. Since then, however, echoes of the country's decision have been seen across Europe. 

Most recently, a water park near the French city of Marseilles cancelled a pool day that required attendees to adhere to Islamic standards of dress, claiming that such an event could be “provocative” in the wake of the Bastille Day attack.

Some French critics of the “Islamic dress day” at the water park say that Muslims who wear religiously affiliated clothing in public are mingling religion with civic life, a muddying of the waters of France's strict secularism.  

"This Islamist day demonstrates that, outside of the comforting words of Muslim authorities, a certain number of Muslims are deciding among themselves to break away from our Republican model and put themselves outside our society," right-leaning local mayor Stéphane Ravier said after the event was cancelled

Sweden, too, has been forced to consider how to best accommodate a growing Muslim population, with a recent decision to host women's only swimming hours in Malmo prompting controversy.

Critics say that separating the sexes represents a step backwards for a modern, liberal country that values gender equality. But others say that it is important to make all people feel comfortable.

When Canada banned wearing the veil during citizenship ceremonies in 2011, critics said that doing so could discourage Muslim individuals who were attempting to assimilate into Canadian culture, Monitor writer Scott Baldauf reported at the time.

Just as in the Cannes case, however, the Canadian measure’s proponents say that the ban is a measure of equality. According to Canadian minister of citizenship and immigration Jason Kenney, "It is a matter of deep principle that goes to the heart of our identity and our values of openness and equality."