Topless sunbathing is a fundamental French “liberty”, the interior minister said on Tuesday after feminists, Right-wing nationalists and Leftists united in outrage that police ordered women on a beach to cover their breasts.
Critics accused the officers of undermining the French way of life after the case hit the headlines.
Far-Right politicians claimed that topless sunbathing, which was popular in France a generation ago but has fallen out of fashion, is now being banned under the influence of radical Islamists.
Gérald Darmanin, who as interior minister is in charge of the French police, tweeted that topless women should not be “reproached”.
“Liberty is a precious asset,” said Mr Darmanin, whose appointment last month provoked fury among feminists and women’s groups because he has been accused of rape. Mr Darmanin, 37, denies the allegations and has never been charged.
The police were forced to apologise for their “blunder” and “lack of tact” after Marie Hebrard, a holidaymaker, told a local television channel that she had witnessed two officers telling women to cover up on a beach in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer last Thursday.
Ms Hebrard said they “stopped to talk to a woman of about 60. We couldn’t hear what they said, but we saw the woman was agitated after they left, visibly upset and frantically looking in her bag for her bikini top.”
Ms Hebrard said she was shocked that the officers went on to approach other topless women.
“My feminist soul spoke out and I went to see them to ask if they thought that topless sunbathing was an offence against decency. They asked me to move on.”
The local police said in a statement that the officers had acted “following a request by a family of holidaymakers who were disturbed by the situation because children were present.”
Under French law, topless sunbathing is permitted on beaches unless prohibited by a local bylaw, which is not the case in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer.
Topless sunbathing became emblematic of France in the 1960s, when Brigitte Bardot popularised the ‘monokini’.
Feminists argued that peeling off was a woman’s right, drowning out family groups’ protests that exposed female nipples would scare children. The educated middle classes took pride that more prudish nations lacked the freedom to disrobe in public.
But most younger French women are now covering up in rebellion against the cult of the body beautiful. Modern feminism, they say, has new priorities.
Aurélien Taché, an MP from the governing République en Marche party, said the incident in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer was “shameful”.
“When will the state stop trying to give moral lessons, especially to women?” he said. “Everyone is free to dress or undress as they like.”
Opposition Socialist MPs expressed similar views and Jean Messiha, a senior figure in the far-Right National Rally, argued that the incident revealed a threat to the French national identity.