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Naturism 'comes out of the closet' in France

By Alison Hird

Following similar decisions taken by the city administrations of Berlin, Munich and Barcelona, Paris city hall plans to open an area for naturists in a park in Paris next summer. The move comes after a recent controversy in France over the right of women to wear cover-all swimsuits on the beach should they chose to do so. To find out more, RFI went in search of people claiming the right to bare all in public.

The French like taking off their clothes. According to the French Naturism Federation (FFN) two million people regularly strip off in the country’s naturist holiday centres and beaches. Another two million German, Dutch, British and Belgians come here each year to do the same making France one of the most popular nudist destinations in the world.

But while Paris is internationally recognized for its haute couture, haute cuisine and omnipresent cinemas, it has yet to become the capital of naturism.

Going au naturel in the French capital is, for the moment, confined to the Roger Le Gall swimming pool in the east of Paris.

Three times a week members of the Paris Naturist Association (ANP) meet there for evening sessions of swimming, body-building, massage and yoga.

Founded in 1953 along with the FFN, it currently has 372 members. The majority are men of all ages, but “we have an increasing number of 18 to 30 year olds,” says Denis Porquet, in charge of welcoming new members.

“On some evenings we have 150 people in the 50m outdoor pool, so it’s getting too small. When we reach 400 members Paris City Hall will let us open a second pool,” he adds.

While the club’s membership seems modest, Denis Moncorgé, vice-president of the association, is convinced that there is a huge market to tap into.

“Several hundreds of thousands of Parisians go to France’s [155] naturist camp sites and beaches each summer,” he says, “but we have a little flame burning within us that wants us to go through the winter too.”

As well as the sporting and relaxation activities, they’ve organised nude-bowling and are planning outings to restaurants. "The idea is to remind people of their holidays and the exchanges they had with people they met there," he says.

Confidence-building

But it’s not just about getting that holiday feeling - the wind in your hair, the sun on your backside. ANP members say there are multiple benefits to bearing all.

“I would never have thought I’d become a nudist. I was very shy, even going to a swimming pool in a swimsuit was hard for me,” confesses pharmacist Hubert Métais, secretary of the ANP. “Nudism was a kind of therapy for me, it helped me to accept myself, it gave me some self-confidence.”

Others appreciate that in a French society riddled with social and class divides, getting naked can help break down barriers.

“When you’re naked it’s really special, we forgot all the social class, all the differences” says Cyril, who works in a restaurant on the Champs-Elysées.

Pumping iron in the weight-lifting room alongside men of quite literally all shapes and sizes he says they “talk about everything, but there’s nothing sexual about it”.

An expression of female freedom

For the moment, only around 10 percent of members are women. ANP blames that partly on the late evening sessions, which don’t necessarily suit women with kids. But the women who do come are enthusiastic.

Marine, a food scientist in her forties, began using the pool six months ago as a way of coming to terms with growing older.

“I realised it’s now time to enjoy my body and mostly to accept it,” she says. “It’s one thing to be able to look at myself in the mirror, it’s another to be naked in front of others.”

She was also motivated to come in the wake of the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and recent controversy over wearing the burkini (body-covering swimwear) on France’s beaches.

“I realise I’m proud to live in a country where you have so much freedom you can even swim naked in front of others. If there are no women anymore in this swimming pool then people will think that it’s not a need, or it’s something ridiculous and that we should stop that. But in fact when more and more women come, it shows that it’s also something that belongs to our culture of freedom.”

Legal limits

But the freedom to bear all does not extend to public spaces in France. French law makes no distinction between nudity and exhibitionism so offenders run the risk of a 15,000 euro fine and a one-year prison sentence.

“French law is rather out of date on this matter,” says Denis Moncorgé. “There’s a legal vacuum because naturism - simple nudity - is not defined in any text. The only reference we have is in the penal code dating back to 1995, which punishes sexual exhibitionism […] and which does us a lot of harm.”

France’s naturists want nudism dissociated with exhibitionism along the lines of Spain.

“It allows individuals to dress or not dress in whatever way they want whether it’s in private or public,” says Moncorgé. “That’s the law in Catalonia and that’s what we want.”

Stepping out at Fete de l’Huma

Naturists drew a lot of attention this summer when they appeared alongside clothed leftist activists at the annual Fete de l’Humanité just north of Paris.

Jerome Jolibois, from the Association for the Promotion of Naturism in Liberty (APNEL), dressed simply in a long moustache and spectacles, said one of their aims was to raise awareness over the ambiguity in French law.

“The law is so unclear that some trials say we are guilty for being naked in the forest and some trials says that it’s OK and not unlawful. So for the sake of our safety and freedom, we really need to have this clarified.”

In practice, while several of their members have been arrested for walking naked in the forest “for the moment the trials are on our side,” he says, “but it’s so unclear that the police don’t know how to react.”

At the heart of the matter Jolibois says is a misunderstanding over what motivates naturists in the first place.

“In today’s society people link nudity with sexuality and we want to say it’s two different things.”

The new naturist zone

In the meantime nudists in Paris are looking forward to the planned naturist zone in a park in Paris next summer. Moncorgé expects it to be straightforward, at least from a legal perspective.

“We just need a large open space, with no pathways going through it, good clear signs to show you’re entering a nudist area, and then it would be managed in exactly the same way as all naturist areas in France,” he explains.

“That’s to say it’s completely open to everyone, but no one is obliged to go. French law cannot impose nudity on anyone who goes there.”

He counters concerns that such an area would attract sexual perverts. “We’d help to make sure the area is frequented by genuine naturists to show that such exhibitionism doesn’t have its place.”

He also dismisses concerns the park might increase tension between different religious communities, which came to a head this summer following attempts to ban the burkini on France’s beaches.

“Not at all. What we’re proposing is very positive and not at all provocative,” says Moncorgé, adding that nudity does not go against any of the major religions.

“We defend the values of laicité [secularism], of living together, and we believe that as in Germany, Spain and the Nordic countries, this example of living completely naked in the open air, in harmony with nature and with one another, is one to follow.”

Inspiration from Germany

While the proposal to open a naturist zone in Paris came from the Green party, Moncorgé maintains it’s a cross-party issue.

“We have naturists from virtually all political parties,” he says, adding that a number of French clergymen and politicians, including two former presidents, have practiced naturism.

While photos published in 2013 allegedly showing a young Angela Merkel enjoying a naturist holiday caused a stir in many countries, they scarcely a raised eyebrow in Germany.

“The photo showing her naked was seen as very banal in Germany. We would like [nudity] to be seen in the same way in France,” says Moncorgé.

He admits there’s a long way to go, but cites the ANP’s guest book as an indication of growing enthusiasm in Paris.

“We have members, but also visitors, from all over the world, and from some surprising countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, north and south America. They’re not ex-pats but people visiting Paris from time to time. It shows us that naturism goes beyond borders, political or religious. It’s obvious, to us, that naturism has universal appeal.”
 

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