France Corsica brawl: Mayor bans burkinis amid tensions

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe fight on a beach apparently broke out when Muslim families objected to photos taken by a tourist

A village mayor in Corsica has banned full-body swimsuits known as "burkinis" after a beach brawl between families of North African descent and local youths.

The ban was imposed at a special council session on Sunday in Sisco amid tensions over the brawl, in which five people were hurt.

Authorities in Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet, on the French Riviera, also banned Islamic burkinis this month.

Witnesses say hatchets and harpoons were used in the Sisco beach brawl.

The five injured on Saturday were later discharged from hospital, but tensions are simmering in the area.

Tension has grown this summer between local communities and Muslims of North African origin in the south of France, especially following the massacre of 85 people by a lorry driver on the seafront at Nice on 14 July.

Women's rights minister Laurence Rossignol warned that the debate over burkinis was being used for "ulterior motives", especially by the far right. While denouncing the burkini as "profoundly archaic", she said that in order to combat such outdated ideas, politicians had to maintain their composure. "I don't want our society being ignited by these subjects."

image copyrightAP
image captionA woman in a burkini on a French beach: There is heated debate about such costumes

But Sisco Mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni was adamant his decision was "nothing to do with racism, it's about protecting people's security". Corsica was "sitting on a powder-keg", he said. The ban, which he had considered for some time, was not against Muslims but aimed at protecting people of North African descent as much as anyone else.

The mayors who imposed burkini bans in Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet are both in the right-wing Republicans (LR) party, while Mr Vivoni is, like the women's rights minister, a Socialist.

On Sunday a crowd of more than 200 Corsicans tried to march on a housing estate - Lupino - on the southern edge of Bastia, but were blocked by police. The Muslim families of North African origin were believed to be from Lupino.

There were scuffles with police, and some in the crowd chanted "This is our home!", France's Le Monde daily reported (in French). Finally the crowd dispersed.

'Hatchets and harpoons'

The justice authorities have launched an investigation to determine exactly what happened on the beach.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPolice could be seen holding back protesters in the Lupino area of Bastia on Sunday

Witnesses say the brawl began after the Muslim families objected to photos being taken by a tourist. When a local teenager, with a group of friends on the beach, also took a photo the brawl erupted. Stones and bottles were thrown. "It wasn't the burkini that started the row," the mayor told French radio.

Soon about 40 men from Sisco arrived to defend the youths, witnesses said, and one of the men was slashed with a harpoon blade.

According to Le Figaro newspaper (in French), some of the older men in the bathing party had attacked the teenagers with hatchets.

Villagers allegedly then set alight cars belonging to the bathers.

France has a deep-rooted tradition of secularism, making the wearing of religious symbols in public spaces controversial. Islamic headscarves are banned from French schools and niqabs (full-face veils) and burkas (full-body veils) cannot be worn in public.

The head of Corsica's regional executive, Gilles Simeoni, has appealed for calm.

At the end of last month, an outlawed Corsican paramilitary group warned Islamist militants against targeting their island.

Mr Vivoni told France Info radio on Monday that the atmosphere in his community was tense and he appealed for the situation to calm down. "There's a fear but I assure everyone that the community is well protected and in any case I think here we're 'protected from retaliation', so to speak."

A court in Nice has upheld the Cannes ban but a religious group, Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), has said it will take the case to France's highest administrative court.

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