The French Republic Is More Than Bare Breasts

France’s prime minister has defended burqini bans by citing Marianne. But who is Marianne?

"Marianne" busts at the French Senate in Paris (Charles Platiau / Reuters)

This week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls explained his opposition to full-body swimsuits and full-face veils for Muslim women by invoking France’s most iconic woman, Marianne, its Lady Liberty since the French Revolution.“Her breast is exposed because she is feeding the people,” Valls said. “She isn’t wearing a veil because she is free. That is the republic.”

Valls’s rationale for why Marianne isn’t veiled is bizarre—as if French artists of the 18th and 19th centuries had deliberately left the burqa out of their paintings of Marianne to make a point. And as if those male artists had primarily intended to celebrate the freedom of women, whose liberties at the time were limited, rather than the freedom of France or freedom more generally. In the works of Eugene Delacroix and Honore Daumier, Marianne is likely more metaphor than Marianne.

But what’s even more striking about Valls’s remarks is the suggestion that there is only one, immutable Marianne, and hence only one vision of the French republic.

Marianne is bare-breasted in some depictions and more modestly dressed in others, as the French historian Mathilde Larrere has noted on Twitter. Marianne, in fact, is sometimes accused of being excessively busty. That too is the republic.

Marianne is, as The New York Times once pointed out, a “Greco-Roman goddess, a harpy, a warrior, a mother, [and] a flapper,” depending on when in French history you look at her. “Like a Barbie doll she has many outfits,” the French cartoonist Jean-Michel Renault wrote. That too is the republic.

Marianne is the French actress Brigitte Bardot, who in the 1970s was the official face of feminized French liberty. Bardot has since been fined five times for inciting racial hatred against Muslims, particularly Muslim immigrants to France, who she claims are “destroying our country by imposing [their] acts.” That too is the republic.

Marianne is the giant photographs of 14 women—many of them North African immigrants or the children of immigrants, and a number of them Muslim—that were displayed in 2003 at the entrance to France’s National Assembly. The portraits were the work of an activist group focused on empowering and preventing violence against women in the country’s largely immigrant suburbs. In the exhibition, which was titled “Mariannes of Today,” all the women were wearing versions of Marianne’s trademark Phrygian cap, in a nod to France’s tradition of secularism. “Who is Marianne?” asked a leader of the activist group. “She’s the ordinary working-class woman facing all sorts of pressures and struggling for freedom from the tyranny of the housing projects. And she’s saying, ‘No matter what my origin, I am a citizen of the French Republic.’ She’s demanding recognition in the public space.” Jean-Louis Debre, the president of the National Assembly at the time, praised the “young Mariannes” for seeking the “freedom to choose their destiny freely,” and applauded “the remaking of the iconography of the republic.” That too is the republic.

Marianne is the black, blond-haired, bare-chested sculpture unveiled in 1999 at the town hall in the French village of Fremainville. The idea, the mayor said, was to signal “that the French people are a mixture, that there’s no such thing as a French race, that we accept strangers, that we accept differences.” Sixteen years later, the sculpture was removed by the town’s new mayor. “That black sculpture was a Marianne of liberty, but not a Marianne of the French Republic,” he said. “She undoubtedly represented something, but not the French Republic.” That too is the republic.

The many Mariannes convey the multiplicity of French identity and French ideals, at a time when a rise in terrorist attacks and the challenges of assimilating immigrants are raising existential, deeply divisive questions about the republic. They explain why supporters of the recent burqini bans in the country can argue that the head-to-toe swimsuit violates the core French value of secularism. And they explain why opponents can claim that prohibitions on the attire infringe on French citizens’ fundamental liberties. The many Mariannes speak to competing freedoms, including the freedom to believe and freedom from belief.

“We are supposed to be in a liberal democracy, and nothing in the law on separation of church and state, the principle of laicite, secularism, says that we should not express our religious affiliation in the public space,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French Muslim Ph.D. student in public law, recently told PRI’s The World, offering one more definition of the French republic. “I saw a nun on a bike yesterday, and I loved her for that. I love the fact that she was confident [enough] to go out on her bike dressed with her veil and robe without having the cops on her back.”

“The minister of interior [has] asked French Muslims to say loud and clear that we love the values of the republic,” Alouane continued. “I love the values of the republic. I hope you can hear me.”