PARIS // France’s highest administrative court suspended a controversial ban on the burqini by a French Riviera town on Friday after it was challenged by rights groups.
In a judgement expected to set a precedent, the Conseil d’Etat ruled that local authorities could only restrict individual liberties if wearing the Islamic full-bodied swimsuit was a “proven risk” to public order.
The judges said there was no such risk in the case before the court concerning Villeneuve-Loubet, one of around 30 towns to have introduced a ban.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) hailed the ruling as a “victory for common sense”.
Police have fined Muslim women for wearing burqinis on beaches in several towns, including in the popular tourist resorts of Nice and Cannes.
The bans have triggered a fierce debate about women’s rights and the French state’s strictly-guarded secularism.
Amnesty International welcomed Friday’s ruling.
“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,” Amnesty’s Europe director John Dalhuisen said.
“French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women.”
The CFCM’s secretary general, Abdallah Zekri, said: “This victory for common sense will help to take the tension out of a situation which has become very tense for our Muslim compatriots, especially women.”
The court heard arguments from the Human Rights League and an anti-Islamophobia group.
A court in Nice had upheld the Villeneuve-Loubet ban earlier this week.
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”.
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.
The office of Nice’s mayor denied that the woman had been forced to remove clothing, and said she was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her top, over a pair of leggings, when the picture was taken.
Prime minister Manuel Valls condemned any “stigmatisation” of Muslims on Thursday, but maintained that the burqini was “a political sign of religious proselytising”.
“We are not at war with Islam ... the French republic is welcoming [to Muslims], we are protecting them against discrimination,” he said.
* Agence France-Presse