Friday 23 February 2018

French court overturns Cannes burkini ban

The UN wants local officials in France to immediately lift bans on burkinis, saying they do not increase security (AP)
The UN wants local officials in France to immediately lift bans on burkinis, saying they do not increase security (AP)

A French court has overturned a ban on burkinis issued in Cannes - the first in a series of bans on the swimwear this summer that set off a heated controversy at home and a wave of outrage abroad.

The court in Nice concluded that the Cannes decree violated basic freedoms and was illegal because there were no proven risks of disruption to public order, or reasons of hygiene or decency, for the ban in the famous Riviera resort.

The decision followed a ruling by a top French court regarding a similar ban in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet that set a legal precedent.

After the Council of State overturned that ban last week, human rights groups said they would challenge similar bans issued in 30 or so municipalities.

The bans grew increasingly controversial as images circulated online of some Muslim women being ordered to remove body-concealing garments on French Riviera beaches.

Lawyers for a human rights group and a Muslim collective challenged the legality of the Villeneuve-Loubet ban at the top court, saying the orders infringed basic freedoms and that mayors had overstepped their powers by telling women what to wear on beaches.

Mayors had cited multiple reasons for the bans, including security after a string of Islamic extremist attacks, risk to public order, and France's strict rules on secularism in public life.

The Council of State ruled: "The emotion and concerns arising from the terrorist attacks, notably the one perpetrated in Nice on July 14, cannot suffice to justify in law the contested prohibition measure."

It ruled that the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet overstepped his powers by enacting measures not justified by "proven risks of disruptions to public order nor, moreover, on reasons of hygiene or decency".

"The contested decree has thus brought a serious and manifestly illegal infringement on basic freedoms such as freedom to come and go, freedom of conscience and personal freedom," the ruling read.

Lawyer Patrice Spinosi, representing the Human Rights League, said women who had already received fines could appeal against them based on the decision.

He said the group planned to ask all French mayors who banned burkinis to withdraw their orders and, if they refused to do so, he would systematically take each case to court.

"It is a decision that is meant to set legal precedent," Mr Spinosi said.

Many officials - including prime minister Manuel Valls - have argued that burkinis oppress women, b ut two ministers of Mr Valls's cabinet - education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and health minister Marisol Touraine - have said banning burkinis is not a good option.

Ms Vallaud-Belkacem, a feminist with North African roots, argued that while she does not like the burkini, banning the garment amounted to a politically driven act that encouraged racism.

The conservative mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, Lionnel Luca, said that "far from calming, this decision can only heighten passions and tensions, with the risk of trouble we wanted to avoid".

Mr Luca denounced "rampant Islamisation" in the country and said: "They've gained a small additional step."

Earlier on Tuesday, the UN human rights office condemned local bans in France on burkini swimwear as "a grave and illegal breach of fundamental freedoms" and a "stupid reaction" to recent extremist attacks.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on local officials to immediately lift the bans, saying they do not increase security.

Mr Colville said the bans "fuel religious intolerance and the stigmatisation of Muslims", and "have only succeeded in increasing tensions".

He said people who wear burkinis or any other clothing "cannot be blamed for the violent or hostile reactions of others".


Press Association

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