France’s highest administrative court has ruled that “burkini bans” being enforced on the country’s beaches are illegal and a violation of fundamental liberties.
The State Council (Conseil d’Etat) was specifically examining laws brought in by the commune of Villeneuve-Loubet but its verdict sets a legal precedent for France.
In their ruling, three senior judges said the ban “has dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty.”
They found that no evidence produced in favour of the prohibition proved a risk to public order was being caused by “the outfits worn by some people to go swimming”.
French court to review burkini ban
The ruling was closely watched in France and around the world, after photos of armed police surrounding a Muslim woman as she removed her top on a beach in Nice sparked outrage this week.
A tribunal in the coastal city previously ruled a burkini ban in the commune of Villeneuve-Loubet was “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” to prevent public disorder.
But the verdict was challenged by the Human Rights League (LDH) and Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), taking the case to the State Council.
In a statement, the LDH welcomed the verdict but said it will not resolve the “ridiculous debate that has made France the laughing stock of the world”.
“What is at stake here is the division of the men and women who live in France by their origin and religion,” activists said. “We reject this vision of France.”
The CCIF greeted the State Council’s verdict with “great relief”, condemning mayors imposing the bans for damaging national cohesion.
“This victory has a strong symbolic resonance that will put an end to the onslaught of stigmatising and draconian political statements,” the group added.
Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer representing the claimants, told reporters that the decision should set a precedent and that other local authorities should conform to it.
The ruling has suspended the anti-burkini law in Villeneuve-Loubet but the mayor of Sisco, in northern Corsica, said he would not lift his own ban.
Ange-Pierre Vivoni brought in the rule after a fight on a beach originally thought to have been sparked by the swimwear, which covers the body and hair.
“Here the tension is very, very, very strong and I won’t withdraw it,” he told BFMTV.
But Mr Vivoni has conceded he does not know whether a woman involved in the dispute between a group of sunbathers of North African origin and local residents was actually wearing a burkini.
At least 30 cities, resorts and communes have implemented bans on modest swimwear this summer and many more are believed to be considering the same move.
None of the vaguely-worded by-laws have specifically mentioned “burkinis” – a slang term describing a range of modest swimsuits covering the hair and body – but several officials have made it clear that Muslim clothing is being specifically targeted.
In Cannes, which was the first city to announce the prohibition, the mayor specifically alluded to the recent attacks by Isis supporters in Nice and Normandy.
The bans have since spread, sparking fierce debate about France’s secular values, women’s rights and religious freedom.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking the conservative nomination for the 2017 race, said he would bring in a nationwide burkini ban if elected to his former post.
But critics have compared the enforcement of the ban to repression in Saudi Arabia and Iran, arguing that governing women’s clothing is a violation of human rights in any context.
Some rights groups have said the new laws amount to the “collective punishment” of Muslims following the terror attacks and amid friction over immigration and the refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, terror analysts have warned that the dispute will fuel jihadist propaganda as groups like Isis attempt to portray France and other Western countries as at war with Muslims.
According to a survey by Ifpop, 64 per cent of French people are in favour of the burkini bans, while 30 per cent described themselves as “indifferent” and only 6 per cent of respondents were opposed.
French politicians remain divided. Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, said the garments represented the “enslavement of women” and were not compatible with French values but the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo condemned “hysteria” on the issue and called for more social cohesion.
Welcoming the State Council’s ruling, Amnesty International said a line had been “drawn in the sand”.
John Dalhuisen, the group’s Europe director, said: “French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women.
“These bans do nothing to increase public safety but do a lot to promote public humiliation.”