• Laws outlawing Islamic-style swimwear had split government
  • International media, leaders ridiculed French swimsuit curbs

France’s top court struck down a push by local governments to ban the “burkini” from the nation’s beaches, saying the Muslim-style full-body swimming outfits don’t create a public threat that justifies impinging on freedom of religion.

The decision dealt specifically with a law in Villeneuve-Loubet on the Riviera but sets a legal precedent against similar bans in at least 31 beach towns, mostly run by rightist mayors. The case was brought by a human-rights organization and a group that monitors anti-Islamic speech.

A woman wearing a "burkini".
A woman wearing a "burkini".
Photograph: Fethi Delaid/AFP via Getty Images

“The contested ban seriously impinged on the principle of equality of citizens before the law, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of movement and was manifestly illegal,” the Council of State said in its ruling.

The local bans, as well as video footage of police standing over a woman on a beach as she removed a long-sleeved shirt, split the government and were widely covered -- and widely ridiculed -- by media around the world. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were among leaders who criticized the prohibitions.

With more than 200 people killed in terrorist attacks since the beginning of 2015 and a presidential election less than eight months away, some French politicians are competing to show toughness in defending the national principle of keeping religion out of the public sphere. The debate over how to balance the lifestyle choices of some Muslims and France’s concept of secularism frequently pops up, from a 2004 law banning headscarves in schools to a 2010 law forbidding face-covering veils to a still-not-resolved debate over whether schools should always offer pork-free lunches.

Allowable Clothes

“The justices have decided we can’t just let a mayor on his own decide what clothes are allowed,” said Patrick Spinosi, a lawyer for one of the groups that brought the suit, after the decision. “There’s no justification for this law.”

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, from the Socialist Party, Thursday reiterated his support of the bans, saying on BFM TV that they were taken in the interest of public order. “The burkini is a political sign of religious proselytizing that shuts in women,” he said. But Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said on Europe1 radio the same day that she’s opposed to laws that, in her words, “set loose racist talk.” Health Minister Marisol Touraine posted on her blog that the bans created a “dangerous stigmatization” and that how women dressed on the beach didn’t “threaten public order or the values of the Republic.”

Politicians on the right were more united in backing the bans. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who Aug. 22 announced his candidacy for the 2017 presidential elections, called for a national prohibition on burkinis Thursday during his first rally in the south of France, as well as banning Muslim headscarves in all public buildings and workplaces. Florian Philipport, vice-president of the anti-immigrant National Front, said on BFM that obvious religious signs such as headscarves, large crosses and yarmulkes should be banned throughout France.

Tareq Oubrou, the imam of Bordeaux and one of the most outspoken moderate Muslim leaders in France, said the burkini debate is making France look “nervous and fragile.” Speaking on Europe1 Friday, he said, “It’s not through prohibitions that you emancipate women.”

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