Following the Bastille Day attacks in Nice that killed 84 and injured dozens more when the driver of a truck systematically ran over those celebrating the holiday, over thirty french towns have banned the burkini which cover all but the hands, face and feet of the wearer. But, France’s highest court struck down the ban of the burkini today in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice.
Religious clothing bans in France are nothing new
France has for over a decade been on the forefront of religious clothing bans throughout both Europe and the world. In 2004, the government banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious items from French schools. While most against the bans would argue that the law specifically targeted Muslims, a student in the predominantly Catholic country would also have been prohibited from wearing a Pope’s hat while swinging around an incense burner like a hammer-thrower.
Seven years after that ban was enacted, France became the first European country to ban the niqab, a full-face veil with an opening for the eyes as well as burqua which covers the whole body and face with the eyes only able to function owing to the use of mesh over the face.
Given today’s ruling, perhaps it was a bit surprising when this 2011 ban on the burqa and niqab was upheld by the courts when a 24-year-old woman brought suit claiming it infringed on her constitutional rights with regards to religious freedom.
Shift from courts today with the overturning of the burkini ban
The Council of State’s ruling today effectively told the mayors of the 30+ towns and municipalities that have banned the burkini that they had not right to do so.
The burkini, following the spate of terror attacks that France has endured, has created an uproar on both sides with many saying it violates religious freedom and the acme of Islamophobia and others considerably more worried about terror attacks supporting the ban.
Earlier this week, a picture of a Muslim woman being forced by armed police to remove parts of burkini Promenade des Anglais in Nice sparked anger from wholly different groups.
Deputy Mayor Christian Estrosi said the officers were simply doing their job and called the photos dangerous to the officers.
“I condemn these unacceptable provocations,” he said.
While he may have had a point, Jenny Dawkins, a Church of England priest also believes she had a point when she joined a protest outside the French Embassy in London which many were calling a “Wear what you want beach party.”
“I think it’s a frightening image,” she said. “I find it quite chilling to see an image of a woman surrounded by men with guns being told to take her clothes off.”
More on today’s reversal of the burkini ban
Technically, the ban reversal only applies to the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet, but could affect other towns that have similar bans if similar challenges are brought to the court which is likely.
“The council has ruled and has showed that mayors do not have the right to set limits on wearing religious signs in public spaces, it is contrary to the freedom of religion, which is a fundamental freedom,” said Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer in Paris who works for the Human Rights League. Spinosi also called today’s ruling “a victory.”
“Normally, mayors should remove their ordinances following this decision, except if they want to race against the clock and go to court,” said Marwan Muhammad, the head of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.
“Now that it is over with the beach, they are going to come back with the debate on long skirts or on halal meals,” he said unconvincingly.
Sarkozy and supporters of the burkini ban
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has announced he will once again run for the presidency is among the most vocal in support of the ban.
“I will be the president that re-establishes the authority of the state,” Sarkozy recenly told a crowd of more than 2,000 in Châteaurenard, Provence.
“I want to be the president who guarantees the safety of France and of every French person,” said the diminutive former President.
“I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools … there must be a law to ban it throughout the republic’s territory,” he told the assembled crowd.
In order for Sarkozy to win re-election he’s going to have to win back the votes of the far-right which essentially kept him from winning reelection and saw him lose to Hollande.