French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been criticized for suggesting that bare breasts were symbolic of his country, not veils.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the prime minister made the comments Monday night during a government rally.
During the speech, Valls made reference to Marianne, the Goddess of Liberty, a national symbol of the French Republic, in comparing bare breasts to veils.
“Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people!” the newspaper quoted the prime minister as saying. “She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”
The prime minister was referring the 1830 painting “Liberty Leading the People” by French artist Eugène Delacroix. The famed painting depicts the 1830 French Revolution as a bare-chested Marianne triumphantly holds the French Flag over a mound of corpses. Marianne, in some fashion, also appears on French coins and postage stamps.
Valls remarks come just days after a high court struck down a town’s ban on the burkini, effectively invalidating such bans in about 30 towns, though many remain.
The ruling by the Council of State Friday specifically concerns a ban on the Muslim garment in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet, but the binding decision was expected to impact all the 30 or so French resort municipalities that have issued similar decrees.
The bans grew increasingly controversial as images circulated online of some Muslim women being ordered to remove body-concealing garments on French Riviera beaches.
As The Guardian points out, Valls comments on Goddess of Liberty stirred backlash from historians. Mathilde Larrere, a historian who specializes in the French Revolution took to social media to blast the prime minister for his comments and schools Valls in a basic art history lesson.
In an interview with The Telegraph, form minister Cécile Duflot, also slammed the prime minister for his comments.
“Mr Valls should have stuck to his text. Marianne is an allegory of the Republic, not of woman,” told the British newspaper. “The idea that a woman wouldn’t wear a veil because she’s free and would be bare-breasted to offer nourishment speaks volumes about the view certain male politicians have of women,”
Mayors had cited multiple reasons for the bans, including security after a string of Islamic extremist attacks, risk to public order, and France’s strict rules on secularism in public life.
Many officials -including Prime Minister Manuel Valls – have argued that burkinis oppress women. But critics say the bans were feeding a racist political agenda as campaigning for next year’s French presidential elections were kicking off.
–with files from The Associated Press