PARIS - France's interior minister has defended topless sunbathing after police asked a group of women on a Mediterranean beach to cover up.
The three were approached by officers on the beach in Sainte-Marie-La-Mer following a complaint from a holidaying family.
The incident generated a huge backlash against the officers.
Backing the women, the minister, Gérald Darmanin, tweeted: "Freedom is a precious commodity".
He said it was wrong the women were asked to put on clothing.
A press release posted on Facebook by the Pyrenees-Orientales police said the incident happened last week.
Two officers asked three people on the beach to cover their chests, after a request from a family concerned about children present.
"Guided by a desire for appeasement, the police asked the people concerned if they would agree to cover their chest after they explained the reason for their approach," it said.
"No municipal order forbids this practice [topless sunbathing] in Sainte-Marie-la-Mer."
Their action prompted a wave of criticism online. Some questioned a wave of "prudishness" sweeping France, while others questioned if the practice was now banned.
Police spokeswoman Lt Col Maddy Scheurer blamed the "clumsiness" of the two officers for the incident. "You will always see me in uniform," she wrote, "but the practice of topless tanning is allowed at the beach of Sainte-Marie-la-Mer."
While Mr Darmanin said it was wrong that the women were asked to cover up, he said it was "normal for the administration to recognise its mistakes".
It is not illegal to sunbathe topless in France, although local authorities can ban the practice with directives about clothing.
A survey by the website VieHealthy in 2019 showed the practice is less common in France now than it was in the past, and is less common than in other European countries.
The survey said 22% of French women asked had sunbathed topless, compared with 48% of Spanish women and 34% of Germans.(FA)