Manuel Valls, france pm.jpg
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview published Wednesday that he understood the decisions by local mayors to ban Islam-influenced full-body swimming attire at the beach, but added that there would be no national legislation.

Speaking to La Provence newspaper, published in southern France where most of the handful of bans have taken effect, Valls said: "The beaches, as with all public space, should be free from religious claims."

Burkinis - a portmanteau of burqa and bikini - are swimsuits designed to cover women's heads, arms and legs while bathing in keeping with Islamic standards of modesty.

Rejecting claims that the bans, which can levy a 38-euro (43 dollar) fine, inhibits a woman's freedom to choose her attire, Valls asserted that the only liberty at stake was the "liberty to subjugate women."

"The burkini is not a new range of bathing suits, a style. It is the translation of a political project, of opposition to society, that is based primarily on the subjugation of women," he said.

"There is an idea that, by nature, women are immodest, impure, and so they should be totally covered. That is not compatible with the values of France and of the republic," he added.

Valls said he understood the mayors' decisions to ban the burkini for the sake of public order, but added that "a general regulation of dress requirements cannot be a solution."

France already has laws in place to prohibit wearing a full-face veil in public or a headscarf in public primary and high schools.

A series of local ordinances prohibiting burkinis on the beach began in the resort city of Cannes, whose mayor cited terrorism threats to sign an order into effect from late July to the end of August.

More than 230 people have been killed in France in the past 20 months by Islamist extremists, and authorities are struggling to protect the country's Muslims from racist backlash while allaying fears over terrorism.

"I want to say to our Muslim compatriots that we will be merciless in the face of those who would make them scapegoats and who see Islam as an ideal culprit for acts of terrorism," Valls said. "They will always find the state on their side."

After a security meeting at the Elysee Palace, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said a number of terrorism-related arrests have been made as France continues to be at an unprecedented level of threat.

A fight broke out at a beach in the Corsican village of Sisco over the weekend between local youths and bathers from North Africa, and various French media have cited witnesses and participants citing a number of conflicting accounts to explain the cause of the scuffle.

In the wake of the fight, the mayor of Sisco decided to implement a burkini ban similar to those in place at Cannes, Villeneuve-Loubet and Touquet. He said the ban was aimed at protecting the North African population and is not discriminatory.

Repeating calls for an Islam of France that is line with the countries values and liberties, Valls said in the interview that he rejected an "archaic vision" behind the burkini and said all religions must "accept some discretion" when publicly flaunting religious convictions.

"Secularism isn't the negation of religion," Valls said. "It is protecting the freedom of everyone to believe, and also not to believe."

His comments stoked a debate that is already waging in France, however, over how to implement the country's particular vision of the separation between religion and public life without disenfranchising an already vulnerable minority.

Related stories

Cannes mayor bans burkini at beach for the summer

Top French court overturns controversial burkini ban

France's Hollande rejects nationwide burkini ban

Minister says burkini bans not right for Italy

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