Sunday 21 January 2018

French mayors defy call to drop ban on burkinis

A woman wearing a burkini at a beach in Marseille after the ban was suspended. Photo: Reuters
A woman wearing a burkini at a beach in Marseille after the ban was suspended. Photo: Reuters

David Chazan, Paris

The mayors of 28 French towns are maintaining burkini bans in defiance of a court ruling, as the issue becomes a key one to the presidential campaign.

Last Friday's judgment by the State Council, France's highest administrative court, that it is illegal to prohibit the full-body swimsuit applies specifically to one resort, Villeneuve-Loubet.

Its conservative mayor has said he would comply with the decision, which set a legal precedent for the other 30 seaside towns that banned the burkini.

A socialist mayor in northern France and a centrist in the south-east also decided to lift bans at the weekend.

Most of the other 28 mayors belong to the centre-right republicans or the far-right Front National. All but one of the bans were imposed by mayoral decrees after the Bastille Day massacre of 86 people in Nice last month, as fears of Islamist terrorism gripped the nation.

After the court ruling, the mayors of several Riviera resorts urged municipal police to redouble their efforts to keep beaches free from burkinis, which are worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women in France.

In Nice, footage showed police in a boat ordering a woman who was wearing a headscarf, a long top and leggings to leave a beach on Saturday. In another incident in the town, two women wearing hijabs covering their hair and necks were also ordered off a beach.

Gil Bernardi, the centre-right mayor of another Mediterranean resort, Le Lavandou, said: "There are no burkinis on the beach (here) and we are making sure it stays that way. The beach is a place to relax, not a space for ideological or religious confrontation."

But human rights groups have said they are preparing to sue towns whose mayors insist on keeping the bans. "All of these municipal orders will be contested in court if they are maintained," said Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer for the Human Rights League which successfully challenged the Villeneuve-Loubet ban.

Mayors defying the ruling have been backed by the former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, who has repeatedly condemned the burkini as a symbol of repression.

The garment has divided both the right and the left with eight months to go before a presidential election in which the Front National is expected to make strong gains,

Mr Sarkozy has called for a national ban, but his rival to become the centre-right presidential candidate Alain Juppe has said he prefers "dialogue" with the Muslim community.

Mr Valls wants a national political debate on the ban, which he backs - as do two-thirds of the French public, according to a recent poll - but most of his socialist colleagues welcomed the State Council's ruling.

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