(CNN) — It might not have the same gravitas as liberté, égalité, fraternité, but the very French tradition of topless sunbathing has been defended as a vital freedom by a government official after a local police force tried to get a group of women to cover up.
France's interior minister intervened in the debate over bikini removal in response to the outrage that followed an incident on the beach at Sainte-Marie-la-Mer, in southern France.
Two gendames approached a group of women and requested they put on their bikini tops, according to a police statement published Tuesday on Facebook.
News of the police action spread and drew a response from the interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, who tweeted that it was "unfounded" that police regulate what people wear on the beach.
"Freedom is a precious commodity," he wrote. "And it is normal that the administration recognize its errors."
Darmanin was referring to the police statement, which described the officers' actions on August 20 as a "blunder."
Police said they were approached by a family who said they were embarrassed by the topless sunbathers because their children were present, and asked the women if they would cover up for that reason.
"No municipal order prevents this practice at Sainte-Marie-la-Mer," said the statement.
Sunbathing topless exists in something of a legal gray area in France, and there is no national legislation legalizing it.
Local authorities are free to set their own rules, and some allow topless or naked sunbathing in certain areas.
However, sexual exhibition imposed on another person in a public space is punishable by a €15,000 (about $17,700) fine and one year in prison.
In 2019, parliament said that its stance on women going topless "follows the evolution of customs and of the notion of decency," underlining that "the female breast is considered an intimate part of the body, falling under the sexual organs."
While the rules differ in different parts of France, there was widespread condemnation of the officers in this case.
"If no decree prohibits it, why did two gendarmes ask these women to cover their breasts?" wrote Alain Droval on Facebook. "In my opinion, as a former gendarmerie officer, it was necessary to ask this family to move further away."
Tartine Céline argued the officers didn't have to ask the women to cover up because they were allowed to be topless.
"It was up to the complainant family to move further if they were disturbed," she wrote. "I also think that they have better things to do with all the delinquency in our towns and villages than wasting time on these kinds of banalities."
Many of those who want to bare all in peace in France traditionally head to Cap d'Agde Naturist Village, the world's largest nudist resort.
However, earlier this month it became the center of a Covid-19 outbreak with nearly 150 people testing positive after staying at or visiting the clothing-optional beach destination in southern France.
Sometimes called the "Naked City," Cap d'Agde is the world's largest clothing-optional beach resort, attracting as many as 40,000 guests on any given day during a typical high season.