Four armed police officers approached a Muslim woman on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice yesterday and demanded she remove some of her clothes. According to some news reports she was wearing a ‘burkini’, but she was in fact dressed in leggings, a tunic and a headscarf. As newspapers published photographs of the incident, L’Obs ran an interview with another woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Siam. She was asked to remove her headscarf on the beach at Cannes last week. She refused. Some fellow beachgoers took her side, but others shouted ‘go home’. She is a former flight attendant from Toulouse, whose family has been in France for three generations. She said that she had felt humiliated in front of her daughter and family, and described the incident as ‘racism, pure and simple’.

All of this is taking place in the context of highly publicised official anxiety in France over Muslim women wearing religious dress, with recent focus on the ‘burkini’. But the French fixation with the way Muslim women dress has a long history. A poster (above) distributed in Algeria in 1958 shows four women. The first three wear the haik, covering their faces; the last, and most prominent, beams at the viewer with an uncovered face and wide eyes. ‘Aren’t you pretty then?’ the poster demands. ‘Unveil yourselves!’ The colonial authorities organised public spectacles of Algerian women ceremonially burning their headscarves.

Frantz Fanon’s essay ‘Algeria Unveiled’ was written the following year. For Fanon, the French colonisers – supported by sociologists and anthropologists – had given Algerian women ‘primordial importance’ in their attempts to subjugate the country. It was through women, the occupiers thought, that the structure of Algerian society and its capacity for resistance could be destroyed. Attempts to unveil an Algerian woman carried for the coloniser ‘the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession’ – and, through her, the country as whole. Meanwhile, Fanon argued, for many Algerians the veil had come to represent ‘the assertion of a distinct identity’ and ‘concern with keeping intact a few shreds of national existence’.

Between 1957 and 1960, two million people were transferred from their villages in the mountains to internment camps. They were photographed and given identity cards; the women were made to remove their veils. The pictures show them staring into the camera. The photographer, Marc Garanger, a conscript who later spoke out against the war, said that ‘the women had no choice in the matter. Their only way of protesting was through their look.’

Yasser Louati, a French civil liberties activist, told me that Nice has a large population of pieds noirs, former settlers in Algeria who were forced to return to France. ‘Racism is completely normal in Nice,’ he said. During colonial times, Louati told me, ‘there was a fantasy that the Muslim woman was waiting for her white saviour to protect her and deliver her, to give her freedom. And now there is this irrational focus on the Muslim headscarf. We saw that in the colonial past. It’s not about freeing her, it’s about undressing her – because that’s a form of domination.’

I spoke to Latifa Akay, who works for the British Muslim charity Maslaha. ‘What I want to know is: where are the white feminists, in France and beyond, who are normally so militant about bodily autonomy?’ she said. ‘I’ve seen the burkini open up the beach as a space for women who’d previously felt excluded from it. To see it being shut down like this is sickening.’

I asked Louati if he expects protests from other sections of French society, given the international outcry over the incident in Nice. ‘If there is no solidarity now, there will never be solidarity,’ Louati said. ‘This is the time for people to flock onto the beaches wearing burkinis, long sleeves and headscarves.’