PARIS • French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has drawn criticism for suggesting that naked breasts are more representative of France than a headscarf or burkini.
At a government rally on Monday, held as the race for next year's presidential election hots up, he championed the bare breasts of Marianne, the national symbol of the French Republic. Marianne is a mythical woman who represents liberty and reason. Statues of her, some with breasts exposed, some covered, appear across France.
"Marianne has her breasts exposed because she is feeding the people, and she is not veiled because she is free - that is our republic," Mr Valls said to ovation from supporters.
The issue of the full-body swimsuit, known as a "burkini", has overshadowed French politics in the wake of a militant attack on Nice in July. Mr Valls last week defended the right of local mayors to impose beach bans, although France's top administrative court has said the bans breach fundamental freedoms.
Opponents were quick to seize on Mr Valls' remarks and one historian said his use of Marianne as a feminist symbol was "moronic", BBC reported.
Ms Mathilde Larrere, an expert on the French Revolution, said Marianne was an allegory and the use of her naked breasts was "just an artistic code" and had nothing to do with femininity, BBC said. She explained in a series of tweets that images of Marianne with naked breasts harked back to classical allusions.
Historian Nicolas Lebourg told French newspaper Liberation that Mr Valls appeared to have confused Marianne with the earlier 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting of Liberty Leading The People, where the figure has her breasts uncovered, the Guardian said.
Many pointed out that Marianne typically has her head covered with a Phrygian cap - a soft felt hat that symbolised freedom and the revolution.
Former Green party minister Cecile Duflot said Mr Valls' praise of Marianne's bare breasts gave an indication of the lamentable view of women held by some male French politicians, the Guardian said.