By Jess McHugh
August 12, 2016
Credit: Wendy Connett/robertharding/Getty Images

Known for its bright blue waters, topless beaches and star-studded film festival, Cannes has long been a summer destination for visitors from Europe and beyond. The mayor of the French Riviera city recently made it known, however, that not everyone was welcome in the southern French playground: including women wearing full body-covering swimwear, commonly referred to as burkinis.

Citing public order concerns, Cannes Mayor David Lisnard banned burkinis, calling them a “symbol of Islamic extremism” that might provoke public unrest. Women found wearing such a full body-covering swimsuit will be asked to change their ensemble, leave the beach or else face a €38 (about US$44.50), fine.

“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 ruling from the mayor’s office said.

France has long enforced strict laws concerning secularism, including a ban on all blatant signs of religion in public schools. Children cannot wear a Jewish kippah, Christian cross, Muslim hijab, or other such symbol while attending class.

The Western European nation also outlawed niqabs, or full face and body coverings worn by some Muslim women, in 2011.

Human rights groups have criticized the Cannes ruling as discriminatory, pointing out that the burkini, unlike the niqab, does not cover the face and therefore does not pose a security threat. The League of Human Rights (LDH) swore to challenge the ruling in court, according to a statement released Friday.

The ruling from the Cannes mayor comes as tensions remain high throughout France following a series of Islamic extremist attacks in the past year and a half. Most recently, a man who had claimed allegiance to the terror organization known as the Islamic State group or ISIS killed 85 people and wounded more than 300 when he rammed a truck into revelers at a Bastille Day parade in Nice, less than 20 miles from Cannes.

In this backdrop of fear of terrorism, the ban on burkinis has consequences beyond beachwear, and it is a symbol of a dangerous trend of stereotyping in France, according to one expert.

“This judgement constitutes not only an obstacle to freedom of expression but also to freedom of religion. Islam is particularly targeted,” Benoît Gomis, an international security expert at Chatham House, told Travel +Leisure in an email. “This decision by the mayor of Cannes illustrates a deleterious climate where amalgams between religion and terrorism are more and more frequent, and where the entire Muslim population is stigmatized.”