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France's top court overturns burkini ban in Riviera town

Fadel Senna, AFP | Attempts to ban the full-body swimsuit have divided the French government and caused anger around the world.

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


The State Council (Conseil d'État) gave the ruling following a request from the Human Rights League and a Muslim advocacy group to overturn the burkini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds it contravenes civil liberties.

The court ruled that local authorities could only restrict individual liberties if there was a "proven risk" to public order. It said the decree to ban burkinis in Villeneuve-Loubet "seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom".

The decision overturned a ruling by an administrative court in Nice on Monday, which had argued that the ban was "necessary, appropriate and proportionate" to prevent public disorder amid a heightened terror alert.

Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, was one of the first of around 30 French towns to prohibit the burkini, a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women which covers the hair but leaves the face visible and goes all the way to the ankles.

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

A look at the burkini ban controversy in France

The ruling by the State Council specifically concerns the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, but the binding decision is expected to set a legal precedent for all municipalities that have issued similar decrees.

Lawyer Patrice Spinosi, representing the Human Rights League, told reporters that other mayors should conform to the court's decision. He also said women who have already received fines can protest them based on Friday's decision.

"Today the state of law is that these ordinances are not justified," he said. "They violate fundamental liberties and they should be withdrawn."

The head of the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), Marwan Muhammad, warned that his group would press charges wherever mayors fail to revoke bans on burkinis.

But several mayors in southeast France remained defiant on Thursday, declaring shortly after the ruling that they would continue to fine women wearing burkinis.

'No link to terrorism'

The burkini controversy made international headlines this week after photographs emerged of armed police surrounding a veiled woman on a Nice beach, fining her and looking on as she removed her tunic.

The publication of the pictures caused a Twitter storm on Wednesday, and the hashtag #WTFFrance (What the F**k France) was trending on French Twitter throughout the day.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he condemned any "stigmatisation" of Muslims, but maintained that the burkini was "a political sign of religious proselytising".

"We are not at war with Islam ... the French republic is welcoming (to Muslims), we are protecting them against discrimination," he told BFMTV.

>> Watch more on “French Connections: Understanding the burkini ban”

But in a sign of the divisions within the Socialist government on the issue, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the "proliferation" of burkini bans "was not a welcome development".

Vallaud-Belkacem, who is of Moroccan origin, took issue with the wording of the ban in Nice which linked the measure to the jihadist attack in the resort town last month in which 86 people were killed.

"In my opinion, there is nothing to prove that there is a link between the terrorism of Daesh and what a woman wears on a beach," she said, using another term for the Islamic State group.

Islamophobic agenda?

The so-called burkini bans never actually mention the word burkini, although they are clearly aimed at the garment. The vague wording of the bans has caused confusion.

Earlier this week, a mother of two told AFP she had been fined on the beach in the resort of Cannes while wearing leggings, a tunic 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 34-year-old who gave only her first name, Siam.

Such incidents have been condemned by prominent feminist groups in France, including some known for their anti-clerical views.

Burkini designer Zanetti: 'It's a tool for integration'

Islamic dress has long been a subject of debate in France, which was the first European country to ban the Islamic face veil in public in 2010, six years after outlawing the headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.

Anouar Kbibech, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), said he was "concerned over the direction the public debate is taking".

Critics say the bans are feeding a racist political agenda as campaigning for next year's French presidential elections kicks off.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who announced this week he's seeking the conservative nomination for the 2017 race, said at a rally Thursday night in southern France that he wants a law banning the burkini "on the entire territory of the Republic."

"This is a slap for the prime minister and a kick up the backside for Sarkozy," Abdallah Zekri, secretary general of the French Muslim Council (CFCM), said of the ruling. "We're satisfied with this."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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