French court suspends burkini ban, says it ‘seriously breaches individual freedom’

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France’s highest administrative court on Friday suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has outraged Muslims and opened divisions within the government, pending a definitive ruling. The Conseil d’Etat gave the ruling following a request from the League of Human Rights to overturn the burkini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds it contravenes civil liberties. The court said in a statement 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.”

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 ban, which spread to more than a dozen coastal towns, had exposed cracks within the Socialist government’s unity as Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended it on Thursday while some ministers criticised it.

The issue has shone a light on secular France’s difficulties responding to homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following Islamist attacks in Nice and a Normandy church in July.

It has also made French cultural identity a hot-button issue along with security in political debates as the country switches into campaign mode ahead of a presidential election next April.

President Francois Hollande said yesterday that life in France “supposes that everyone sticks to the rules and that
there is neither provocation nor stigmatisation”. Anger over the issue was further inflamed this week when photographs in the British media showed police surrounding a woman in a headscarf on a beach in Nice as she removed a long-sleeved top.

In the meantime, Amnesty International is praising the court’s decision against bans on burkini swimsuits, calling such decrees invasive and discriminatory. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, said in a statement Friday: “By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fuelled by and is fuelling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand.”

Several French towns banned the burkini for reasons including security and fears of public disorder. France’s Council of State ruled Friday that a burkini ban in one Riviera town is not justified and violates several fundamental rights. Many human rights groups denounced the bans, which caused shock outside French borders.

“Invasive and discriminatory measures such as these restrict women’s choices and are an assault on their freedoms,” Dalhuisen said. “The enforcement of these bans leads to abuses and the degrading treatment of Muslim women and girls.”