France’s highest administrative court on Friday suspended a town’s ban on so-called burkinis, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women that has become the focus of intense debates over women’s rights, assimilation and secularism.
The Council of State, the top court in the French administrative justice system, ruled that the ban on bathing at the beach in the outfit, enacted by the town of Villeneuve-Loubet on Aug. 5, violated civil liberties, including freedom of movement and religious freedom.
At least 20 other municipalities, most of which are on the French Riviera, have imposed similar bans. Although the decision Friday does not apply directly to them, it amounts to a warning that their prohibitions are likely to be similarly struck down if challenged in court. The largest such community is the city of Nice.
Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer for the Human Rights League in Paris, one of the groups that had challenged the ban, called the ruling a “victory” that set a legal precedent, and he said his association would now ask mayors in other towns to withdraw their bans.
“The council has ruled and has showed that mayors do not have the right to set limits on wearing religious signs in public spaces, it is contrary to the freedom of religion, which is a fundamental freedom,” Spinosi said.
Critics of the bans have said they unfairly targeted Muslims and stirred up fear in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe. The bans recently provoked a backlash in France and abroad, after photographs spread online showing armed police officers enforcing them.
Villeneuve-Loubet, a seaside resort of about 14,000 between Nice and Cannes, is the town where the first ban was enacted, on July 28. Most of the prohibitions are temporary and run until the end of the holiday season. The restrictions in Villeneuve-Loubet end on Sept. 15.
Marwan Muhammad, the head of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, another group that challenged the bans, praised the ruling, but he expressed concern that some communities might drag their feet.
“Normally, mayors should remove their ordinances following this decision, except if they want to race against the clock and go to court,” Muhammad said, noting that the ordinances are set to expire in the coming weeks, while the court process can drag on for longer.
The ordinances in question target bathing attire that is not “appropriate,” that is not “respectful of good morals and of secularism,” and that does not respect “hygiene and security rules.”
The wording makes no mention of a specific religion or type of clothing, but it is widely perceived to be aimed at Muslim women who are trying to dress modestly while at the beach.
The mayors of the towns with such prohibitions have argued that burkinis pose a threat to public order after multiple terrorist attacks in France in the past months, including one in Nice on July 14 that killed 86 people.
But the Council of State said that there was no evidence that such threats existed in Villeneuve-Loubet, saying in its ruling that the “emotions and concerns that are the result of the terrorist attacks, most notably the one carried out in Nice last July 14, do not suffice to legally justify the ban that is being challenged.”
The Council of State also said that rules mayors enacted had to be “adapted, necessary and proportionate” to maintain public order, while also respecting fundamental liberties.
Anti-discrimination and human rights groups challenged the restrictions in local courts, but the rules were upheld, leading the groups to appeal to the Council of State, which heard arguments from lawyers on both sides Thursday.
The bans have also fueled an intense political debate and split the French government, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressing support for them and several female ministers opposing the restrictions, even as they voiced distaste for the garments.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently announced that he would run in the center-right presidential primaries this fall, said Thursday at a political rally that the burkini should be banned on beaches and at swimming pools by a nationwide law. Several lawmakers in Sarkozy’s party have announced their intention to put forward legislation to that effect.
“We cannot leave mayors faced this provocation alone,” said Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012 but lost his re-election bid to François Hollande, the current president.
Muhammad, the head of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said he feared that the ruling would not put an end to the debates in France about Islam.
“Now that it is over with the beach, they are going to come back with the debate on long skirts or on halal meals,” he said.
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