PARIS: Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, caused uproar yesterday (Tuesday) after he invoked the national symbol of the republic, Marianne, as proof the burkini was an affront to Gallic values.
"Her breast is bare because she's feeding the people. She isn't wearing a veil because she's free," he said during a Socialist rally on Monday night.
French commentators and political opponents heaped ridicule on Mr Valls.
One historian insisted his use of Marianne as a feminist symbol was "moronic".
Argument has been raging in France over the full-body swimsuit sometimes worn by Muslim women since a string of resorts on the French Riviera banned the clothing earlier this summer.
A Nice court yesterday overturned a ban in Cannes on the grounds it violated fundamental liberties.
The row has dominated political debate as campaigning for next spring's presidential elections gets under way, with Nicolas Sarkozy, candidate to represent the centre-Right Republicans calling for a new law banning the garment, which covers the body but not the face.
However, Mr Valls was roundly accused yesterday of taking things too far.
Mathilde Larrere, an expert on the French Revolution, said Marianne was an allegory and the use of her naked breast "just an artistic code" borrowed from antiquity and nothing to do with femininity.
Ms Larrere pointed out in a tweet that the Delacroix painting depicted Liberty and not a republic.
In the 19th century, there were two competing symbols of Marianne - a demure, unarmed, fully clothed heroine, and a Marianne with a Phrygian bonnet, sword and exposed breast, she explained.
While revolutionaries opted for the naked Marianne, more conservative republicans backed the clothed figure, even banning bare breasts at one stage. None talked of women's rights and freedoms, she pointed out.
Le Figaro political correspondent Sophie de Ravinel said that while Marianne's breast was exposed, her head was covered too.
Meanwhile, Cecile Duflot, a green former minister, said: "Mr Valls should have stuck to his text. Marianne is an allegory of the Republic, not of woman.
"The idea that a woman wouldn't wear a veil because she's free and would be bare-breasted to offer nourishment speaks volumes about the view certain male politicians have of women," she went on.
Over the years, the faces of several female French public figures have been used to represent Marianne, from Brigitte Bardot to Catherine Deneuve.
Mr Valls's comments came as the United Nations human rights office issued a stinging rebuke of the burkini ban, calling it a "stupid reaction".
A spokesman for Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: "It's frankly a stupid reaction to what we are... facing, in terms of terrorist attacks.
"It does nothing to increase security, it does nothing to improve public order."
The bans follow a string of killings by Islamist militants in France over the past 20 months that have left more than 200 dead - most recently when a truck driver rammed his vehicle into crowds in Nice on July 14.
The spokesman said the UN rights office understood the grief and anger generated by the attacks.
But he added that such decrees "fuel religious intolerance and the stigmatisation of Muslims in France, especially women".