Nicolas Bessone, prosecutor of Bastia, Corsica, gave a press conference on Wednesday, August 17, in which he presented the result of the four-day police investigation into the fight at Sisco beach on Saturday 13 August.
Three Muslim brothers from the Lupino neighbourhood in Bastia and two villagers from Sisco had been arrested on Wednesday and held in detention, where they were interrogated about the incident.
He insisted that the protagonists were neither Islamic radicals nor racists and described the fight as a territorial battle between a Muslim family from Lupino and the Sisco villagers.
According to Mr. Bessone, three Muslim brothers arrived on the beach on Saturday with their female companions and attempted to “privatize” it. The Muslim women, contrary to initial press reports, were not wearing burkinis but were swimming in full Islamic dress.
The first incidents broke out early in the day when the Muslims put up a no entry sign to keep people from coming on to the beach. A couple already on the beach were forced to leave, as were two young boys canoeing in the creek. Tourists, including a Belgian who took a photograph and local passers-by who got too close were insulted, threatened and pelted with stones.
A group of village teenagers then arrived on the beach as they usually did on a Saturday afternoon. At this point the situation deteriorated and conflicting versions were given to the investigators. One teenager claimed he was hit by one or more of the three Muslim males.
The father of the teenager was informed his son was being molested and when he arrived on the scene he too was beaten. Several witnesses indicated to the police that harpoons and a baseball bat were used in the attack.
Dozens of angry villagers then arrived on the beach and in turn physically attacked the Muslims, before the gendarmes arrived and stopped the fight.
The three Muslim brothers aged around 30 and two villagers, a 50-year-old baker and a 21-year-old municipal employee, were interrogated on Wednesday evening. The two villagers were released and will appear in court on Thursday August 18 with the three Muslims, who were already known to the police, one of them for drug-dealing and resisting arrest.
“All the protagonists deny they hit the others,” revealed a police source. The prosecutor concluded that “on the one hand, there was a gangster-style attempt to take over the beach, on the other an overreaction on the part of the villagers.” The spin he put on the fight was that it was a simple breach of the peace, comparing it to a brawl caused by 10 Italians “arriving in a village riding Vespa scooters.”
On Wednesday evening, around 500 people, including local politicians, assembled outside the Borgo gendarme station to show their support for the two villagers being interrogated.
The prosecutor’s conclusions play down the role of Islamic radicalism in the affair, but the fact that the women were not wearing burkinis but full Islamic dress is immaterial. There was a deliberate attempt by the family to take over a public beach and prevent others from using it through verbal and physical violence. There could not be a clearer demonstration that they are refusing to coexist with the local population and prefer to live apart. Such an attitude can only be driven by religious radicalism and hostility to France.
Meanwhile, the ban on burkinis by four French mayors and others set to follow suit with the backing of Prime Minister Manuel Valls has met with negative reactions from Muslim opinion leaders.
The CCIF (Collective against Islamophobia in France) challenged the decree by David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes, in court and lost. They have now lodged an appeal with France’s highest court, the Council of State.
The French Human Rights League has issued proceedings at the Administrative Tribunals of the four towns concerned by the ban, seeking to have it overturned.
Activist group SOS Racism also opposes the ban, accusing the mayors of “malevolence towards the Arab-Muslim population.”
The ban has not stopped Muslim women from frequenting the beaches at Cannes sporting burkinis. On Saturday, August 14, a 29 year-old woman was fined by municipal police officers for wearing a burkini, followed by a 32-year-old on Sunday and a 57-year-old on Monday. Six other women swimming in burkinis were not fined but given a formal warning and left the beach “without difficulty.”
Meanwhile, Franco-Algerian businessman and political activist Rachid Nekkaz has offered to pay the $45 fines imposed on women who flout the burkini ban. He made a similar offer after the burka was banned in 2010, setting up a $1 million fund “for the defense of liberty” and stating that “although I am personally opposed to the wearing of the burka, I believe that in a democracy nobody has the right to prevent a person wearing a garment of their choice as long as the garment does not represent a danger to the freedom of others or national security.”
Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).