Burkinis, economy top items in French presidential campaign

FILE - In this Aug. 4 2016 file photo made from video, Nissrine Samali, 20, gets into the sea wearing a burkini, a wetsuit-like garment that also covers the head, in Marseille, southern France. France's top administrative court has overturned Friday Aug. 26, 2016 a town burkini ban amid shock and anger worldwide after some Muslim women were ordered to remove body-concealing garments on French Riviera beaches. (AP Photo, File)

PARIS — The national identity crisis exposed by France's burkini controversy is threatening to set the tone for the country's presidential campaign.

Along with the economy, the relationship between France's Muslims and non-Muslims has been a recurring theme as presidential hopefuls kick off campaigning for the April-May election. Some leftists say the far right is using the issue to encourage racism in France.

A top French court ruling Friday against banning the burkini didn't put an end to the debate. Some mayors are refusing to rescind their bans, arguing that the head-to-ankle swimwear could disrupt public order after a summer marred by Islamic extremist attacks. The burkini bans by some French coastal towns drew international condemnation after images circulated online of police appearing to require a Muslim woman to disrobe.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy and other some other conservative candidates want a national law banning burkinis. Sarkozy's chief rival for the conservative nomination, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, struck a more conciliatory tone, saying on Europe-1 radio Sunday that such rhetoric "throws oil on the fire."

But at a campaign event Saturday in Chatou west of Paris, Juppe suggested putting limits on how far religious practices can reach into public life, calling for a special accord between the state and Muslim leaders to lay out clear rules for respecting French secularism.

"It is legitimate to ask them to have a knowledge of the principles of the organization of the republican state, especially French-style secularism," he said.

The economy and security issues are likely to dominate the French campaign for the April and May presidential elections, after years of 10 percent unemployment and a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks.

While many on the French left criticize the burkini as oppressing women, they also fear the issue feeds into the agenda of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Benoit Hamon, a former Socialist government minister seeking the leftist presidential nomination, tweeted Sunday that the burkini debate "is targeting Muslims once again." Hamon criticized Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a fellow Socialist, for supporting burkini bans.

Socialist President Francois Hollande, who hasn't announced whether he will seek a second term, has remained cautious in comments on the burkini.

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