Effort to get people to cover up in Ile du Levant, France, exposes discord in longtime nudist colony
ILE DU LEVANT, France—On a blustery morning on this Mediterranean island, dozens of naked men and women marched arm-in-arm in defense of their right to bare bottoms.
The target of their protest was Jean-Yves Gacon, who is wielding his authority as head of the island’s homeowners association to force people to wear clothing. The coverup has the backing of the mayor’s office as well as local police who are stopping anyone who dares stroll through the village square without clothes.
“The traditions of this place need to be preserved,” says Elizabeth Varet, a 70-year-old retired English teacher who attended the protest, held last year, in the buff.
Mr. Gacon, 67, wearing a black shirt, white trousers and sunglasses inside his office, refuses to back down. “Asking a person to throw on a beach wrap is hardly the apocalypse,” he says.
The clash, which raged last summer and is set to resume this year as the weather warms, has exposed rifts between nudists and “textiles,” caused a jurisdictional battle with the mainland and prompted Mr. Gacon to reinterpret the colony’s history as part of his campaign.
The nudist colony, one of Europe’s most storied, was founded in the 1930s when two French doctors and brothers, André and Gaston Durville, relocated to the sun-splashed island with the dream of fostering a back-to-nature community.
Clothing was oppressive, the settlers believed, because it obscured and disfigured the body, breaking the human form into pant-legs, skirts and shirt sleeves.
With no running water or electricity, the island’s first inhabitants lived a simple and secluded life. The brothers sold parcels of land to newcomers who later formed a homeowners’ assembly to lay down rules for the island.
In the 1960s, the island began attracting a more free-spirited crowd. Thousands of tourists flocked to the island every summer, many of them sleeping under the stars. Beach parties drew the likes of American actress Jayne Mansfield and French singer Georges Moustaki.
As the colony grew, Ile du Levant became divided into zones with varying codes of undress.
The beach and hiking trails were strictly clothes-free. Nudity was banned inside the barbed wire confines of a military base set up in the 1950s and used for missile testing. Going nude in the village square was also against the rules, but nudists say enforcement of the clothing requirement in town was lax.
The 1980s drew a curtain on the island’s hippie culture. Vacationers deserted the island in favor of more buttoned-up holiday destinations, fueling a spike in real-estate prices in nearby Riviera towns such as St. Tropez. The average age of Ile du Levant’s residents also rose.
The tourist flight left Ile du Levant’s vacation homes relatively cheap. That attracted a new wave of immigrants—people from the mainland who were skittish toward nudism. The island’s longtime residents dubbed the newcomers “the textiles.”
Among the textiles was Mr. Gacon, a retired civil servant at the French Treasury in Paris, who was elected president of the homeowners assembly in 2013 after buying a house on the island.
The newly installed president was cut from different cloth than his nudist neighbors. Mr. Gacon enjoyed skinny dipping in Ile du Levant’s pristine waters. But whenever he left the beach, the clothes came on.
“I’m not even sure he’s naked at home!” says Jean-Albert Vaillant, a 69-year-old who generally wears reading glasses—and nothing else—when running the village grocery store.
These days, Mr. Gacon stands at the center of a cultural revolution. He has advocated for a zero-tolerance approach to enforcing the island’s skimpy dress code. Anyone caught naked in public spaces in the village got fined.
The retired civil servant began re-examining the history of the colony and its founders. The Durville brothers, he says, didn’t go entirely nude but instead wore a stringy garment to make sure they weren’t indecently exposed.
“The Durville brothers respected the law,” Mr. Gacon says.
Mr. Gacon’s opponents organized a referendum to roll back the island’s piecemeal clothing requirement, allowing nudism to be practiced in the village square and surrounding shops.
A majority of the island’s 240 property owners voted in favor of it. Local authorities refused to implement it.
Ile du Levant’s police fall under the jurisdiction of Hyères, a town on the coast of the mainland where nudism isn’t generally practiced.
“I respect nudism, but it shouldn’t be decadent,” says Jean-Pierre Giran, the mayor of Hyères. Ile du Levant’s referendum, he warned, amounted to a power grab that tread on Hyères sovereignty.
Ile du Levant “is a private island. It’s not the Vatican. I am in charge of public order,” he added.
The island’s die-hard nudists chafed over the mayor’s intransigence. In an act of civil disobedience, 76-year-old Doris Mertiny showed up naked at a meeting of the homeowners’ assembly last summer.
A room full of clothed residents stared back at the nude retiree. Then many followed suit, disrobing one-by-one in front of Mr. Gacon in a show of solidarity with Ms. Mertiny.
“The president glowered at me,” Ms. Mertiny recalls.
The island’s business lobby also lined up against Mr. Gacon’s regulatory zeal. Gilles Goiset, a hotel owner who heads the island’s small-business association, says the island needed to show off its nudist traditions to attract new visitors, not conceal them.
Asking tourists to cover up as they cross the village square on their way to the beach, Mr. Goiset says, sows confusion.
“If there’s anything nudists dislike, it’s putting on clothes,” said Mr. Goiset, lounging in the village cafe with a loincloth wrapped around his waist.
Under pressure, the mayor has offered a compromise: People will be allowed to cross the village square naked as long as they don’t stop and stand still.
Many of the island’s residents see the compromise offer as a mere fig leaf.
“It’s better than nothing, but that’s not going to solve anything in the long run,” says Mr. Vaillant, in his grocery store. He thinks some people will always be uncomfortable with nudity. “We’re all bathing in hypocrisy.”
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