France’s highest administrative court has ruled that the enforcement of “burkini bans” on the country’s beaches are illegal and a violation of civil and religious liberties.
The State Council (Conseil d’Etat) was specifically examining laws brought in by the commune of Villeneuve-Loubet but its verdict sets a legal precedent for France.
In their ruling, three senior judges said the ban “has dealt a serious and clearly illegal blow to fundamental liberties such as the freedom of movement, freedom of conscience and personal liberty.”
They found that no evidence produced in favour of the prohibition proved a risk to public order was being caused by “the outfits worn by some people to go swimming”.
The ruling was closely watched in France and around the world, after photos of armed police surrounding a Muslim woman as she removed her burkini on a beach in Nice went viral this week.
The initial ban was challenged by the Human Rights League (LDH) and Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), who took the case to the State Council.
In a statement, the LDH welcomed the verdict but said it will not resolve the “ridiculous debate that has made France the laughing stock of the world”.
“What is at stake here is the division of the men and women who live in France by their origin and religion,” activists said. “We reject this vision of France.”
The CCIF greeted the State Council’s verdict with “great relief”, condemning mayors imposing the bans for damaging national cohesion.
“This victory has a strong symbolic resonance that will put an end to the onslaught of stigmatising and Draconian political statements,” the group added.
Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer representing the claimants, told the French press that the decision should set a precedent and that other local authorities should conform to it.
Some rights groups have said the burkini ban amounts to the “collective punishment” of Muslims following the terror attacks and amid tensions over immigration and the ongoing refugee crisis.
According to a survey by Ifpop, 64 per cent of French people are in favour of the burkini bans, while 30 per cent described themselves as “indifferent” and only 6 per cent of respondents were opposed.
The United Nations (UN) has supported the court’s decision with spokesman Stephane Dujarric stating: “We welcome the decision by the court. I think our opinion was expressed fairly clearly the other day on the need for people’s personal dignity and person to be respected.”
Welcoming the State Council’s ruling, Amnesty International said a line had been “drawn in the sand”.
John Dalhuisen, the group’s Europe director, said: “French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women.
“These bans do nothing to increase public safety but do a lot to promote public humiliation.”