Top French court suspends ban on burkini swimsuits

Order had outraged Muslims and opened serious divisions within the government

Police order a Muslim woman to remove her burkini on a beach in Nice this week. Photograph: Poppy Gold

Police order a Muslim woman to remove her burkini on a beach in Nice this week. Photograph: Poppy Gold

 

France’s top administrative court has overturned a town burkini ban amid shock and anger worldwide after some Muslim women were ordered to remove body-concealing garments on French Riviera beaches.

The ruling by the Council of State specifically concerns a ban in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet.

Under the French legal system, temporary decisions can be handed down before the court takes more time to prepare a judgement on the underlying legality of the case.

The ruling will be binding and will affect at least 30 other coastal towns, mainly in southeast France, that have made similar decrees.

Lawyers for two human rights groups challenged the legality of the ban, saying the orders infringe basic freedoms and that mayors have overstepped their powers by telling women what to wear on beaches.

Mayors had cited concern about public order after deadly Islamic extremist attacks this summer, and many officials have argued that burkinis oppress women.

Lawyer Patrice Spinosi, representing the Human Rights League, told reporters that the decision should set a precedent, and that other mayors should conform to it. He also said women who have already received fines can protest against them based on Friday’s decision.

Images of uniformed police appearing to require a woman to take off her tunic in Nice, and media accounts of similar incidents, have elicited shock and anger online this week. Some fear that burkini bans in several French towns, based on a strict application of French secularism policies, are worsening religious tensions.

The mayor of Sisco, in northern Corsica, said he will not lift his ban on the burkini despite the ruling.

Ange-Pierre Vivoni had banned the burkini after an August 13th clash on a beach in Sisco. He told BFM-TV: “Here the tension is very, very, very strong and I won’t withdraw it.”

He conceded he does not know whether a woman was actually wearing a burkini the day a clash occurred that set a group of sunbathers of North African origin, from another town, against villagers from Sisco.

It took days to untangle the events leading to the violence that many immediately assumed was over a burkini.

Divisions have emerged in President Francois Hollande’s government over the bans, and protests have been held in London and Berlin by those defending women’s right to wear what they want on the beach. Critics of the local decrees have said the orders are too vague, prompting local police officials to fine even women wearing the traditional Islamic headscarf and the hijab, but not burkinis.