Travel

Sun worshipers on a French beach symbolize secular dilemmas

ANNA PARINI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Along a sandy stretch of beach in Antibes, on the Côte d’Azur, women sunbathed in bikinis, the trademark swimsuit of the French. A few were topless, a remnant of those freewheeling decades when Brigitte Bardot reigned as the international mascot for the tony playground that is the French Riviera in high summer.

Here, Madonna frolicks with her kids on jet skis. A young Teddy Kennedy learned how to dive — courtesy of older brothers Joe and Jack — by jumping off the rocks behind the Hôtel du Cap- Eden-Roc, still a favorite hangout for Hollywood stars walking the red carpet in Cannes, just up the road. The navy and white mega yacht of Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder, is moored here in summer.

And F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the final draft of “Tender Is the Night” in rented splendor nearby.

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Salis Beach is less rarified. It’s public, drawing daytrippers and families enjoying their five-week vacances.

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But these days it’s a window on the cultural and religious cross-currents roiling this defiantly secular country.

On the beach one day in late July, plopped on the sand right next to a topless woman smoking a cigarette, was a young mother, swathed in drenched, dark leggings gritty with sand, topped by a long-sleeved, light-colored tunic. Her head was entirely wrapped in moss-colored fabric. Only her face was exposed.

A short distance away, clinging to plastic swim noodles in the azure Mediterranean, were two older women completely clothed, wet from head to toe.

The jarring juxtapositions — skimpy next to the furthest from — casts into high relief France in 2015, a country balancing its treasured century-old laïcité — a law requiring a strict separation of church and state — with the religious demands of its Muslim population, at about 5 million the largest in Europe.

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Beachgoers on both sides of the dress divide seemed to passively accept one another on the sand that day in Antibes. But just days before, a group of girls had been charged with attacking a woman sunbathing in a bikini in a park in Reims, in northern France, reportedly over her “immoral” display of skin.

After police said the alleged attackers came from housing projects with large Muslim populations, the narrative swiftly took hold that radical Islam was rearing its head in secular France. The Daily Mail of London trumpeted the arrests of a “Muslim girl gang.’’

There was an immediate uproar on Twitter, with hundreds of women posting pictures of themselves sunbathing in bikinis under the hashtag #jeportemonmaillotauparc (which translates “I wear my swimsuit in the park”). The response was likened to the Je Suis Charlie campaign sparked by the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January by Muslim extremists angered by the magazine’s depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Apparently few saw the follow-up story by the Daily Mail the next day in which police said the attack in the park “had nothing to do with Islam.” It was simply a fight between rival girl gangs.

But the seeds of discord had been sown years earlier. In 2010 France banned the wearing of burqas, the complete body covering that leaves just an opening for the eyes, in public. Last summer, the European Central Court upheld the ban, which was challenged by a woman who argued that it infringed on her religious freedom.

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In October of last year, after Agence France-Presse reported that a woman wearing a full burqa had been expelled from a performance of the French National Opera, the French government said it would circulate guidelines to cultural institutions about the law prohibiting full veils in public spaces.

A decade earlier France had banned head scarves in public schools. While other “ostentatious” religious symbols were also prohibited, such as Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, the ban was widely seen as targeting the scarves worn by observant Muslim girls and women.

So, while there is nothing illegal about covered-up women enjoying a French public beach — provided they are not wearing a full burqa — the sight rankles some. Last summer, French conservative politician Nadine Morano sparked an uproar when she posted a photo on her Twitter and Facebook pages of a covered-up Muslim woman on a beach juxtaposed with a photo of Bardot in a bikini, according to the website of RFI English, a French current affairs radio station.

Morano recounted a scene reminiscent of that July day on Salis Beach. A couple arrived, the man changed into his bathing suit and entered the water, while the woman, wearing a long-sleeved tunic and pants sat “obediently on the beach.”

“Such a sight on French territory, in this, the country of human rights is infuriating!” she said, adding that it’s “an attack on our culture, on sex equality.”

“When you choose to come to France, a country which respects the rule of law, where religion and the state are separated, you should respect our culture and women’s liberty. If not, you go somewhere else!” she wrote.

Rant aside, Morano acknowledged that the woman was doing nothing illegal.

Abdallah Zekri of the National Observatory against Islamophobia accused Morano of “stigmatizing Islam,’’ according to the RFI English report, while a fellow member of parliament, Valerie Pécresse shot back, “You can dress however you like on beaches.”

But Socialist Minister for European Affairs, Harlem Désir, told RFI English, “I can understand her reaction. I have witnessed this sort of scene, not just in France, but also in other countries, and I have always found it absurd.”

In early August, a different sort of Muslim backlash gripped another stretch of beach along the French Riviera when King Salman of Saudi Arabia announced plans to vacation for three weeks with an entourage reported to be between 500 and 1,000 people. The king’s villa, built in the 1930s and acquired by the royal family in the late 1970s, has hosted many luminaries over the years, from Winston Churchill to Marilyn Monroe.

But since the villa in Villauris is just above La Mirandole, a public beach, officials said the sand and sea would be off limits during the king’s visit for security reasons.

The vice prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes region told CNN that recent terror attacks in France — notably the Charlie Hebdo killings — put the country on high alert and the Saudi king could be considered a potential target.

News of the beach closure at the height of summer prompted a petition that garnered more than 100,000 signatures. The mayor of Villauris wrote to President François Hollande complaining that concrete was poured onto the sand to anchor a temporary elevator to whisk the king directly to the beach, the BBC reported.

Just eight days into what was supposed to be a three-week stay, the Saudi king was gone. In an e-mail to the Associated Press, sub-prefect Philippe Castanet denied that the king’s early exit was unusual. “There is nothing abnormal about his departure after eight days,’’ Castanet said.

The elevator was dismantled.

Patricia Nealon can be reached at patricia.nealon@globe.com.