France ‘turning into new Saudi Arabia’ in row over topless female sunbathing

French police asked a group of topless women to cover up on the beach, sparking a ferocious debate about the country's proud emphasis on bodily freedom.

Gendarmes patrolling the Mediterranean seaside town Sainte-Marie-la-Mer last week asked the sunbathers to cover their breasts after a family complained about the public nudity.

In a statement on Facebook, the local police station admitted the officers' actions had been "clumsy" but insisted they weren't trying to enforce a ban on topless sunbathing in the town.

Women going topless in beaches and parks is a common sight in France (although less than it used to be), and the incident prompted a wave of criticism on social media.

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"Is Sainte-Marie-la-Mer now Saudi Arabia?" one user remarked.

"Topless sunbathing has long been practiced in France," a Twitter user said. "If people don't like it, find a space on the beach where people are covered. Why teach your children that breasts are something to be ashamed of?"

"People complaining about topless sunbathing on a beach in France. Ye Gods. Please France, remain true to yourself!" another said.

"Yikes. Women have been sunbathing topless at the beach for decades now in France. But now we've got a cold American wind blowing us your thought and body police," one person posted.

Others slammed what they described as a creeping "prudishness", "fascism" and "body-phobia" in France.

"It was wrong that the women were warned about their clothing," interior minister Gerald Darmanin tweeted.

"Freedom is something precious. And it is normal that officials can admit their mistakes."

Maddy Scheurer, spokeswoman of the French gendarmerie, said on Twitter: "You will always see me in uniform.

"But topless sunbathing is allowed on the beach at Sainte-Marie-la-Mer. It was clumsiness by two gendarmes who had the best intentions."

Topless sunbathing is not considered to be sexual exhibitionism under French law, although participants can be told to cover up by local directives that may prohibit certain styles of dress — or undress.

The practice is seen as a sign of France's progressive attitude toward gender equality.

Recent surveys have indicated young French women are increasingly concerned about sexual harassment and body shaming on the beach and as a result are less likely to sunbathe topless.

Less than 20% of women aged under 50 now sunbathe topless, compared with 28% 10 years ago and 43% in 1984, according to a recent survey by pollster Ifop of more than 5,000 Europeans including 1,000 French people.

In contrast, almost half of Spanish women say they sunbathe topless, while 34% of German women do the same.

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