France’s top administrative court suspends burkini ban

French Highest court to decide whether swimsuit should be banned at beaches as activists and rights groups take up the issue.

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 Friday specifically concerns a ban in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet, but the binding decision is expected to set a legal precedent for all the 30 or so French resort municipalities that have issued similar decrees.

Villeneuve-Loubet’s prohibition of the full-body bathing suits worn primarily by observant Muslim women “dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental freedoms of movement, freedom of conscience, and personal liberty,” the three judges of the State Council (Conseil d’Etat) wrote.

In a statement, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve suggested that it was time for the local officials to back down, saying it was now “up to each and every one to responsibly seek to ease tensions, which is the only way to avoid disturbances to public order and to bolster coexistence.”

The United Nations and the White House seemed relieved by the ruling.

“Obviously we welcome the decision by the court,” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s chief spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, who had expressed concern about the burkini ban, said at a news briefing, emphasizing “the need for people’s personal dignity to be respected.”

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said the United States did not want to “second-guess” France, but noted that President Obama “believes strongly in the freedom of religion.”

Burkini – a fierce debate

In recent weeks, a network of local mayors and officials across France passed similar bans on the Australian-born bathing suit, casting the burkini as the latest iteration of the burqa, the full-face veil that, in 2010, France became the first European country to ban outright. This 2010 law followed an earlier 2004 law prohibiting religious wear such as headscarves in public schools.

The burkini bans have triggered a fierce debate about the wearing of the full-body swimsuit, women’s rights and the French state’s strictly guarded secularism.

President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that life in France “supposes that everyone sticks to the rules and that there is neither provocation nor stigmatisation”.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Thursday condemned any “stigmatisation” of Muslims, but maintained that the burkini was “a political sign of religious proselytising”.

French news agency AFP reported that a Muslim woman wearing a full-body swimsuit in Cannes was ticketed for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” A witness said she saw the woman’s daughter crying as bystanders clapped for the police and shouted, “Go home.”

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