French court to rule on burkini ban as row escalates

Woman photographed removing top on beach while surrounded by armed police

The political row in France over mayors banning the burkini has intensified after a woman in a headscarf was photographed on a beach in Nice removing a long-sleeved top while surrounded by armed police.

The series of pictures, taken by a local French news photographer, showed a woman dressed in leggings, a long-sleeved tunic and headscarf being approached by four officers.

As the police stand around her, she removes her long-sleeved top, revealing a short-sleeved top underneath. It is unclear whether or not the woman was ordered to do so. In another image, a police officer appears to write out a fine.

A spokesman for Vantage News, which released the pictures in the UK, said they were taken at about 11am on Tuesday. “The woman was fined, she left the beach and so did the police,” the spokesman said.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has meanwhile said burkinis must be banned throughout France at his first campaign rally for the 2017 presidential election.

Hundreds of supporters waving French flags chanted his name and applauded as Mr Sarkozy, who led France from 2007-2012 before losing an election to Socialist Francois Hollande, promised to protect the French people.

“I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools...there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic’s territory,” he said.

Issues of security and immigration are now central to the presidential election campaign, and Mr Sarkozy is tapping into the worries of voters on the right with a hardline platform of law and order.

“In my speech there is no fear, there is no hatred, there is just common sense,” Sarkozy said, accusing critics of closing their eyes to ordinary voters’ woes. “The French people are not fascist because they consider there are security problems.”

Rights league request

On Thursday, the council of state, France's highest administrative court, was to examine a request by the French Human Rights League to scrap the burkini bans. Lawyers argue that the short-term decrees are illegal.

The Nice mayor’s office denied the woman at the centre of the latest row had been forced to remove clothing, telling Agence France-Presse she was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her tunic over a pair of leggings.

The woman was wearing ordinary clothes and not a burkini, or full-body swimsuit. The photographer noticed the police presence, but was standing far from the scene and took the pictures with a long lens, his French photo agency told newspaper Libération.

Last week, Nice banned the burkini on its beaches, following about 15 seaside areas in southeast France where mayors have done the same.

Nice's deputy mayor, Christian Estrosi, from the centre-right Les Républicains party, said a municipal police team had "acted perfectly to make sure that [the] decree was respected".

He threatened legal action against anyone disseminating pictures of municipal police. A total of 24 women have been stopped by police in the city since the burkini ban came into force.

The pictures of the woman removing the item of clothing were met with outrage. “I am so ashamed,” tweeted the French feminist Caroline De Haas.

Accounts of other women being stopped by police for wearing Muslim headscarves and long-sleeved clothing on beaches caused fury among the ruling Socialist party and rights groups.

‘My daughter was crying, she didn’t understand why her mother was being asked to leave’

In Cannes, a 34-year-old mother of two described how she had been stopped and fined on a beach, where she was sitting with her children, while wearing clothes and a headscarf.

"I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming," said the former flight attendant from Toulouse, giving her name only as Siam.

Speaking to BFMTV, she said three police officers had approached her and said a decree issued by the mayor of Cannes stipulated that everyone had to wear correct and appropriate clothing, and that she should tie her headscarf round her head as a bandana or leave the beach.

She told the police that she thought her clothing was normal and appropriate, she had not shocked anyone and there was no law stopping her being dressed as she was.

“I wasn’t in a burkini, I wasn’t in a burqa, I wasn’t naked, so I considered my clothing was appropriate,” she said.

She described a mini-riot around her as about 10 people ran over in support, telling the police that the family was not bothering anyone, while about 10 others verbally insulted her.

“There were insults like ‘Go home’, ‘We don’t want that here’, ‘France is a Catholic country’. My daughter was crying, she didn’t understand why her mother was being asked to leave.”

She was fined by police, who wrote on her ticket that her clothing did not conform with “good manners” or French secularism.

Mathilde Cusin, a journalist who was at the scene, said: "Some people clearly applauded the police ... People asked her to leave or take off her headscarf. It felt like I was watching a pack turn on a woman seated on the ground in tears with her daughter."

The mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, told magazine L'Obs that he supported the police who had taken the decision to enforce the ban on any "ostentatious outfits" at the beach.

Other footage, posted on Twitter by Feiza Ben Mohamed of the Nice-based Federation of Muslims in the South, appeared to show a woman in headscarf, trousers and tunic top being apprehended by police for standing on a beach.

A police officer explained that her way of dressing could be a public order risk.

The Socialists said the actions of police and bystanders towards Siam in Cannes showed a “particularly dangerous” excess and were “incompatible with the law”.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith requested urgent talks with the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, citing the "growing fear of stigmatisation of Muslims in France".

Afterwards, Cazeneuve said: “The implementation of secularism and the option of adopting such decrees must not lead to stigmatisation or the creation of hostility between French people.”

On Thursday, the council of state, France’s highest administrative court, will examine a request by the French Human Rights League to scrap the burkini bans. Lawyers argue that the short-term decrees are illegal.

The bans follow the Bastille Day attack in Nice and the murder of a priest in Normandy.

The various mayoral decrees do not explicitly use the word burkini; instead they ban “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation,” citing reasons such as the need to protect public order, hygiene or French laws on secularism.

Wearing a burkini remains legal in France

But wearing a burkini remains legal in France. It is also legal to wear in public a Muslim headscarf that does not cover the face.

The burkini bans have prompted a row over the French principle of laïcité (secularism), amid accusations that politicians are twisting and distorting this principle for political gain, and to target Muslims.

The French republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. In theory, the state is neutral in terms of religion and allows everyone the freedom to practise their faith as long as there is no threat to public order.

Benoît Hamon, a former education minister running to be the Socialists’ presidential candidate in the 2017 election, said a woman being stopped by police for wearing a headscarf on a beach made a mockery of French secularism and warned against “an obsessive one-upmanship against Muslims” by politicians.

Green party senator Esther Benbassa tweeted: "Women in headscarves stopped by police on the beach. Secularism? No. Harassment. Anti-religious persecution."

The French group Osez le féminisme said: "We condemn these anti-burkini decrees. Where are women's rights when we hold one category of women responsible for 'public disorder', or even for terrorism? What is the link between a woman in a headscarf on a beach and mass murders carried out by jihadis?"

Tough legislation

France has some of the toughest legislation on headscarves in Europe. This includes a ban on niqab full-face coverings in all public places on the basis that they hide a person's identity.

State workers in the public service, such as in hospitals or town halls, must by law be impartial and neutral, and so cannot show their religious belief at work with an outward symbol such as a headscarf, cross or turban.

In 2004, a law outlawed all religious symbols in state schools, which banned girls from wearing a headscarf, or hijab, to school, as well as religious symbols such as a cross, the Jewish kippa or a turban.