Why are the French so worked up about a bathing suit? Because for France, the beach is more than just a coastline – it’s a symbol of national identity.
- By Sophie FuggleSophie Fuggle is a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom. She is the co-editor with Nicholas Gledhill of the recently released book La Ligne d’Écume: Encountering the French Beach.
If we are to believe Marine Le Pen, the palm-lined promenades, golden sands, and dazzling sea of the Côte d’Azur have become a battlefield this summer, where a fight is being waged for the very soul of France.
Writing on her personal blog last week, Le Pen — the leader of the far-right National Front — voiced her disgust over the presence of the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women, on France’s beaches and offered her support to the various towns and resorts that have banned the garment in quick succession over the past few weeks. French beaches are not places where women cover their bodies, Le Pen wrote, adding, nostalgically, “The French beaches are those of Bardot and Vadim.”
Le Pen was referring to the films of celebrated French director Roger Vadim and his first wife and muse, Brigitte Bardot. Le Pen may have, in particular, been thinking of Vadim’s iconic 1956 film And God Created Woman, which featured a young, scantily clad Bardot as the sexually charged 18-year-old orphan Juliette. The film’s official trailer describes it as “set in the pagan paradise of the French Riviera,” of which the characters make full use, but there is more to this story than a scenic beachside sex romp.
At the time, France was in the midst of a postwar economic boom that saw the rise of mass tourism, bringing many working-class families to beaches for the first time. Club Med — or Club Méditerranée — which would later go on to become a global vacation brand, had just been founded in Paris a few years earlier.
But if life was a beach in the 1950s, just a few years earlier, things had been very different. By invoking French nostalgia for the famous duo and the era they represented — and then linking the burkini to the recent attacks in Nice and Normandy — Le Pen isn’t just harking back to a mythical time before covered-up Muslim women ruined the eroticism of the deserted French coastline; she is also playing on deep-rooted national anxieties by offering a reminder that the French beach hasn’t always been a place of rest and relaxation. It has also been the site of violence, trauma, and invasion.
The beach has long been a powerful symbol in France and a repository of French national identity. In addition to filmmakers, the beach has inspired French artists, writers, and philosophers. Famous Frenchmen have even claimed beaches beyond their own borders: Painter Paul Gauguin left his mark on Tahiti, for instance; writer and escaped convict Henri “Papillon” Charrière did the same for Venezuela and satirical novelist Michel Houellebecq for Thailand. But just what exactly the beach has stood for has shifted over the years and varied with the context of each era.
For centuries, the French coastline stood for vulnerability and exposure — not of bodies, but of the nation. Beaches were liabilities to be defended (although, according to an oft-cited anecdote, Louis XIV complained that he lost more territory to the Italian astronomers he commissioned to map his coastline than he had in foreign wars because of their precise tools and measurements, which revealed French coasts to be smaller than expected). Post-World War II, barbed wire and bunkers scarred the French Atlantic for years, providing an ongoing reminder of the German occupation. Club Med co-founders Gérard Blitz and Gilbert Trigano actually opened their first resorts outside France, on the Spanish island of Majorca and in Salerno, Italy, because they felt the French holidaying population needed above all to be taken somewhere beyond the national horizon, with its reminders of war and everyday life.
In the postwar 1950s and 1960s, however, the French idea of the beach began to transform. The combined power of French cinema and brands like Club Med promoted the beach as a mythical site of hedonistic freedom and sexual transgression. At the same time, the beach was held up as a place of social equality. The 1970s saw the further growth of all-inclusive holiday resorts and the expansion of paid annual vacation, which by 1982 had increased to five weeks and was viewed as a right to be enjoyed by all French citizens rather than a privilege. Club Med began to define itself as a space of anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois counterculture: Club Med marketing slogans celebrated its resorts as an “antidote to civilization,” where guests used “bar beads” to pay for drinks instead of money and were welcomed in arrival ceremonies that encouraged them to shed the trappings of their everyday bourgeois lifestyles. Henri Raymond’s 1960 sociological study of a Club Med village de vacances, or vacation village, made note of a common assertion repeated by holidaymakers: “There are no social differences when everyone is in a swimming costume.”
We can still see traces of these early French attitudes toward beach tourism today in the powerful response elicited by the burkini. It is unlikely that, even in the 1960s, anyone ever wholeheartedly subscribed to the myth that only wearing a pair of trunks or a sarong eliminated all social hierarchy. Nevertheless, there remains a sense today that stripping off at the beach constitutes a personal commitment toward removing the trappings of bourgeois existence. Not only does the burkini remind people of the class, race, and gender tensions back in the city, but those wearing it seem to be refusing to participate in the pretense of social leveling that is supposed to occur through the exposure and vulnerability that stripping down entails.
The problem for those who want to see the burkini gone, then, is not the arrival of the burkini itself on the French beach, but rather the perception that those sporting it are not actively participating in and maintaining existing myths. If the French beach is a place that everyone regardless of status and background can use and enjoy in the same way, then the appearance of the burkini on the beach demands that France’s Muslim population be written into the country’s various existing narratives: Muslim citizens, too, are entitled to a five-week paid vacation, an exodus from France’s cities, and childhood trips to crowded beaches.That French Muslim women might opt to play and swim with their children at the beach rather than hide themselves away in the shadows of France’s deserted cities challenges misconceptions about female agency and Islam. The myopic vision of French society presented to us by people like Le Pen insists that the beach remain a space of unapologetic, dated misogyny and female objectification embodied in the cinema of the 1950s.
Although, for some, the presence of the burkini threatens the fragile equilibrium of a beach culture predicated on bare flesh and secularism, for others, it has sparked welcome debates about whom and what the beach is for. Le Pen’s allusion to the iconic beach scenes of And God Created Woman conveniently overlooks the deeper plot of Vadim’s film. The film is actually a story of a changing economic landscape: Bardot’s sexually voracious Juliette finds herself caught between the shipyard owners and brothers Antoine and Michel Tardieu, whose family represents old French seaside culture, and the wealthy land developer Eric Carradine, who is looking to build a new casino on their strip of beach. It is not without a certain amount of irony that the current leader of the far-right in France has chosen to affirm an image of economic change where fishing and shipbuilding — traditional forms of labor and industry usually championed by Le Pen — must make way for bars, casinos, and the fulfillment of hedonistic sexual desire.
On her blog, Le Pen presented the French beach as a sort of sacred space — a timeless marker of French national identity. But the beach lends itself to national myths precisely because it is a space that is forever changing. It is subject both to erosion and reclamation but also to redevelopment and the arrival and departure of different individuals and groups.
The beach does not have to be a battlefield. Those looking for an antidote to Le Pen’s ideas about who and what gets to define the French beach would do well to look to another New Wave film director and contemporary of Vadim, Agnès Varda. Her 2008 film The Beaches of Agnès uses the theme of the beach to provide a highly personal retrospective on her life and filmmaking career. Appearing in various imagined, reconstructed, and historical guises, the beach is a site of return and reflection embodied most poignantly in the images of Jacques Demy, her husband, shortly before his death in 1990.
Throughout the film, Varda is present as a fully clothed octogenarian, celebrating the beach as a site of enduring love alongside casual sex, family ties alongside adventure and risk. The beach may be a constant feature in the French cultural imagination, but, as Varda shows us, it can represent difference, change, and love, rather than sameness, exclusion, and hate.
Photo credit: RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images/Cocinor/Foreign Policy illustration