Perhaps not since Louis Réard introduced the first bikini to Paris in 1946 has beachwear been such a heated topic in France. The controversy began last week, when a women's group from Marseilles advertised a "burkini day" at a local waterpark. The event, which would have banned men over the age of 10 as well as two-piece bathing suits, drew a barrage of criticism before quickly being cancelled.

Since then, controversy sparked by the event has only grown. Seven seaside resort towns from Corsica to Calais, including the city of Cannes, have passed bans on bathing costumes that cover the entire body and part of the head. The debate surrounding both the burkini and attempts to ban the garment touches deep questions about how the French republic sees itself. For these municipalities, the question is not one of modesty, but security and French values. It's a debate over laicity and religious freedom, security and rights, alienation and integration.

Cannes has been the center of much of controversy about the new laws. Last weekend, the city fined three women for wearing bathing costumes deemed to cover too much. Another six women were warned about their swimwear, but left the beach without difficulty.

David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes, described the burkini as "a uniform that is the symbol of Islamic extremism," and said that the ban was part of a number of different steps taken to ensure the security of the city during France's state of emergency. This means that the burkini restriction has the same legal justification as a ban on large beach bags.

When the Collective Against Islamophobia in France contested the law before a human rights tribunal last week, the magistrate who heard the case accepted this justification. In upholding Lisnard's ban, the judge decided that that, "in the context of the state of emergency," wearing the burkini or similar garments could cause disturbances of public order and thus, the ban was justifiable.

"Wearing distinctive clothing other than usual swimwear can indeed be interpreted as not being, in this context, a simple sign of religiosity," the opinion stated. The opinion also referenced the French constitution and its guarantee of a secular government.

Many supporters of the ban, including conservative politicians from all levels of the French government, have voiced similar concerns, fearing that burkini threatens both France's safety and its identity.

"In Saudi Arabia, women don't swim topless or in a thong. In France, we don't swim in a burqa on the beach," said Thierry Solère, a French parliamentarian.

The most important voice to speak out in support of the mayors was Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who defended the legislation in an interview on Wednesday. Saying that he sympathized with mayors who proposed the bans as part of a search for "solutions to avoid problems of public order," Valls described that the burkini was as much a political statement as a fashion choice.

"The burkini is not a new swimsuit fashion trend. It's the translation of a political project for a counter-society based on woman's enslavement," Valls said in an interview with a local newspaper.

"There is an idea that, by nature, women are indecent, impure so should cover themselves entirely. That is not compatible with the values of France and the Republic," he continued.

Still, critics of the swimwear "restrictions have accused the government of ulterior motives.

Olivier Dartigolles, spokesman for the French Communist Party, said that the Prime Minister's comments were playing into the hands of the terrorists.

"Doesn't the prime minister of our country have other things to do?" He asked. "[The head of the government] is playing into the hands of the terrorists, because religious war, permanent tensions, the slide towards civil war, is exactly what they want."

He was far from the only person to believe the issue was much ado about nothing.

"I have the impression that France is falling back into adolescence," said Christine Boutin, founder of France's Christian-Democrat party, in an interview on Wednesday where she worried over the effects the controversy would have on relations between Christians and Muslims. For Boutin, the problem with the bans is their implicit attempt to restrict the free practice of religion.

"Putting a veil on your head does not seem, to me, to be an attack on laicity," Boutin continued. "Laicity is to accept all religions."

Her criticism exposes the ongoing debate in France about the nature of la république. To what extent is it the role of the government to protect French traditions and culture? Or is the government bound to respect the rights of individuals to practice their religion as they wish? The answer is doubtless a compromise between the two extremes, but what that will look like remains to be seen.