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French Muslim leaders urge action after woman forced to remove 'burkini'

Interior minister says swimwear ban should not lead to 'stigmatisation', hours after woman apparently forced to undress by police on beach
Police surround the woman as she undresses in Nice (Twitter)

The French interior minister has said bans on the "burkini" swimsuit must not lead to "stigmatisation", hours after a French Muslim woman was apparently forced to undress by police on a beach in Nice.

Bernard Cazeneuve made his comments after on Wednesday after a meeting with leaders of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which warned of growing hostility to Muslims in France.

"The implementation of secularism, and the option of such decrees must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people," Cazeneuve said after a meeting with Anouar Kbibech, the president of the CFCM.

The CFCM had earlier said it was "concerned over the direction the public debate is taking", citing the "growing fear of stigmatisation of Muslims in France". 

The statement came hours after a series of photos were published showing a woman dressed in leggings, a tunic and headscarf lying on a beach surrounded by four police officers.

At one point the woman removes her tunic - it is unclear if she was ordered to do so or did so of her own accord - while a policeman appears to write out a fine.

The council said in a statement: "We have seen images... she wasn't even wearing a burkini."

"With the difficult and critical situation France is facing after the tragic attacks which deeply affected the country, the CFCM calls for wisdom and responsibility from everyone.

The photos, whose source is not clear, caused a furore on Twitter, where many interpreted them as the woman being forced to undress by police.

She was wearing a sleeveless top under her tunic.

"Question of the day: How many armed policemen does it take to force a woman to strip in public?" Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.

A comment by an activist named Sihame Assbague, retweeted more than 7,000 times, said the scene has made France "the laughing stock of the world".

"I am so ashamed," wrote French feminist Caroline De Haas.

The hashtag #WTFFrance was popular on French Twitter.

Nice is one of about 15 French towns which has banned the wearing of the "burkini" - a full-body Islamic swimsuit which covers the head - on beaches, with authorities declaring it to contravene French secular values and threaten public order.

France's highest administrative court, the State Council, will on Thursday examine a request by the Human Rights League (LDH) to scrap the ban, enforced on some 15 beaches in the country.

Lower courts have supported the decision by French mayors, with a tribunal in the Riviera city of Nice - where a crowd was mowed down in July in a grisly truck attack - saying the "burkini" could "be felt as a defiance or a provocation exacerbating tensions felt by" the community.