France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil D’Etat, has called time, at least for now, on the shameful “burkini bans” adopted by mayors across the country, in effect orders that prohibited wearing “religious clothing” on the beach. The court, ruling for the Human Rights League and Collective Against Islamophobia in France, ordered the suspension of the ban adopted by Villeneuve-Loubet, a small town on the French Riviera. Although the ruling only has direct impact on that specific ban, it should create a precedent for 30 other municipalities with similar rules.
The court flatly rejected the Villeneuve-Loubet authorities’ arguments, finding there was no evidence that “conduct adopted by some people” had created any public order risk. “Public sentiment or fears arising from terrorist attacks, including the one committed in Nice on July 14, are not sufficient to justify the ban,” the judges held. They also refused to accept that the bans could be upheld on hygiene or decency grounds. They concluded that, “the impugned order has led to serious and blatantly illegal infringements on fundamental freedoms such as freedom of movement, freedom of belief and personal liberty.”
The much-anticipated court decision is straightforward, relying simply on the law and basic human rights principles – which were so easily pushed aside by the discriminatory municipal orders and clearly forgotten by much of the French political class (with some notable exceptions). The ministers in Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s government who courageously came out against the decrees despite the line taken by Valls and other government colleagues are due full credit. Other politicians, from both left and right, who exploited this undermining of individual liberties for political gain, demonstrated their opportunism in being willing to set aside republican principles and effective, legal responses in the name of security. The court has underscored that fear of terrorism cannot be exploited to justify baseless restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Such a clear message is refreshing; it is not said enough.
We hope the court’s ruling is just the first step to ending the remaining burkini bans. The decision should also give pause to those who were so quick to back measures that stigmatize a group of French citizens just because of their religion.