As outrage continues to unfold over photos appearing to show French police accosting a woman for wearing a headscarf and black undergarments at a Nice beach, some French are now alleging the photos showing the incident were staged.
The photos began circulating online over the weekend appear to show a woman being forced to remove her swimsuit—described by many outlets as a burkini, a bathing suit popular with Muslim women because they cover their bodies and heads—by four armed police officers. The alleged incident came a week after Nice joined several other cities in banning burkinis, claiming they are in conflict with France's secular worldview.
In any event, some French politicians found the incident too perfect to be believed. The conspiracists are being led by Julien Dray, an aide to President Francois Hollande, who wrote on his Facebook page, "You don't need to be a magician to see that the Nice beach photos were not exactly spontaneous…"
Also weighing in was Laurent Bouvet, the head of Printemps republicain, a group that advocates for strict secularism in French society.
"One cannot rule out a staging, that they were a provocation to obtain this desired result," he said.
These views have gained traction on social media, where the hashtag #manipulation accompanied tweets accusing those on the left of trying to "turn Muslims into victims."
The photos were sold to the Daily Mail by a French agency called Best Image, multiple reports said. Reached by French daily Libération, a representative for the agency denied any claim that there was a set up, or that the woman was paid.
"The scene unfolded Tuesday around 11 a.m." the rep, who was not identified, said. "The photographer, who had proposed to work on anti-burkini arrests, had just arrived on this beach near the promenade des Anglais.
"His then noticed a brigade of municipal police. He situated himself far from the scene, maybe more than 100 meters, and he photographed it using a telephoto lens. He saw the police talk with this woman, who ended up removing her vail, and was nevertheless issued a warning."
On Wednesday, a representative for Nice authorities gave his version of how the incident unfolded. When police approached, the woman "herself removed her veil to show she had a long bathing suit," Christian Estrosi said. "The police told her that she could either dress properly for the beach, or leave it. She preferred to leave the beach."
Estrosi also complained that taking photos of police is illegal, which other reports said is not the case. He is now threatening to sue those who share them.
What's undeniable is that more than 30 towns on the French Riviera have now put in place laws that call for, "proper dress, respectful of good morals and laïcité, respecting the tenets of hygiene and safe swimming," according to LeMonde. The Daily Mail reported that in addition to the woman shown in the most prominent photos, another young Muslim mother was ordered off the beach at Cannes and fined for wearing a headscarf.
"Three armed officers pointed a pepper spray canister in the 34-year-old's face and told her she was in breach of a new rule outlawing swimming costumes that cover the entire body," the Mail said.
As many as there are who believe something's amiss with the photos, others on social media mocked the theories, suggesting they are a troubling sign that the country's strict adherence to secularism is spinning out of control.
"There it is, a theory conceived on the couch without any information, because YOLO," wrote Adrien Sénécat, a journalist for LeMonde. He quotes another interview with Dray in which the politician admits he has no formal proof of his ideas.
"It's interesting, this sudden recourse to conspiracy theories regarding the non-burkini versus police of Nice. Total denial of reality," said Pierre Beyssac, a technologist.
The issue of local mayors passing anti-burkini laws is now being taken up by France's national Council of State, which will issue a ruling Friday on whether they are legal.
"Will we decide to continue issuing warnings in local towns where Muslims are banned from appearing? Or will public spaces remain spaces of freedom, where each person can express their faith publicly?" asked Sefen Guez Guez, an attorney for the Council Against Islamophobia in France, which lodged the complaint with the council, according to Le Monde.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.