Published On: Tue, Aug 30th, 2016

Topless Marianne remark by PM Manuel Valls stirs French row

Liberty on the statue of bare-breasted Marianne is a prominent feature in the Place de la Republique in ParisThe statue of Liberty is bare-breasted at the Marianne monument in Paris

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has upset political rivals and historians by invoking the symbol of the French republic, Marianne, in the row over “burkini” beach bans.

“Her breast’s exposed because she’s feeding the people; she isn’t wearing a veil because she’s free,” he said.

But opponents were quick to seize on his remarks as the race hots up ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

One historian said his use of Marianne as a feminist symbol was “moronic”.

Mathilde Larrere, an expert on the French Revolution, said Marianne was an allegory and the use of her naked breast “just an artistic code” and nothing to do with femininity.

The issue of the full-body swimsuit, known as a “burkini”, has overshadowed French politics in the wake of the militant attack on Nice in July. As campaigning kicks off for next year’s presidential election, Republican candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has called for the swimsuit to be banned.

Mr Valls last week defended the right of local mayors to impose beach bans, although France’s top administrative court has said the bans breach fundamental freedoms.

And, addressing a Socialist Party rally attended by several ministerial colleagues, he said the French had to reclaim patriotism in the face of Islamist totalitarianism, insisting there should be no compromise on the role of women.


But when he invoked Marianne, Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine and Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem did not applaud.

Green politician Cecile Duflot said the prime minister’s remark was comical because Marianne’s head was covered with a Phrygian cap, another symbol of the French Revolution. She shared several images on social media from a National Assembly exhibition, including one describing Marianne as “a little part of all of us”.

Mathilde Larrere set out in a series of tweets why the prime minister had been wrong to invoke Marianne to support his argument.

The renowned Eugene Delacroix painting depicted Liberty, she said, and not a republic.

During the 19th Century there were two competing images of Marianne that mirrored two differing concepts of the republic, she said. A wise, fully clothed, unarmed Marianne and a Marianne with a Phrygian bonnet, sword and exposed breast.


Radical revolutionaries would espouse the naked Marianne and more conservative republicans the clothed figure, Mathilde Larrere explained. And none of the men of that period had imagined giving women civil powers, freedom or the right to vote.

Le Figaro political correspondent Sophie de Ravinel said that Manuel Valls had departed from his text to make the remarks, and she pointed out that while Marianne’s breast was exposed, her head was covered too.


Over the years, the faces of several leading French women have been used to symbolise Marianne, including Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta.

More recently, there was some controversy over the reported use of a topless Ukrainian protester who was said to have inspired the face on France’s national stamps.


Inna Shevchenko founded the bare-breasted movement Femen and was granted asylum in France in 2013.

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