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European court upholds France's Muslim veil ban

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The European Court of Human Rights is set to rule on the controversial French veil ban, that could mean France has to look again at its law. Photo: Denis Charlet/AFP
10:00 CEST+02:00
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday France's ban on the wearing of the full-face veil in public does not violate the human rights of Muslim women. Judges said the law was justified on the grounds of social cohesion.

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) backed France's rules on religious headgear on Tuesday when it ruled the country's law banning full-face veils in public was legal. 

According to the justices, the controversial law introduced in 2010 does not exceed the authority granted to states in the European Convention on Human Rights and thus France's ban on wearing veils like the burqa and niqab in public, doesn't violate the religious and human freedoms of Muslim women.

The ruling was in relation to a case brought by a 24-year-old woman who is a "devout Muslim and she wears the burqa and niqab in accordance with her religious faith, culture and personal convictions."

Her legal team argued that the ban violated her rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a prohibition against discrimination.

But judges at the ECHR disagreed.

"The Court emphasized that respect for the conditions of 'living together' was a legitimate aim for the measure at issue," a statement from the court said.

The court also noted that states should be allowed a degree of discretion - "a wide margin of appreciation" - on a policy issue which is subject to significant differences of opinion. 

Two of the 17 judges who spent several months deliberating on the case dissented from the majority view that the ban did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights' provisions protecting the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The judges agreed unanimously that the woman had not been a victim of discrimination. She had not been prosecuted under the law, which has resulted in only a handful of arrests since it was introduced four years ago.

The International League of Women's Rights, founded by French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, welcomed Tuesday's ruling as a "victory for secularism and women's rights".

However, Amnesty International France said the decision sets a dangerous precedent for personal freedoms in France.

"When a state limits the freedom of expression in cases that are not allowed by the law, it opens the door for other limitations. It's a tragic precedent for the European Union," Amnesty President Geneviève Garrigos told The Local. "It's dangerous. This "living together" notion could be extended to provide a justification for banning homosexuals from demonstrating in the street."

French authorities say the law, which offenders facing fines of up to €150 ($203) is needed to protect the country's secular traditions and for security reasons. 

The (ECHR) has already allowed France discretion when it banned Muslim headscarves at schools in the name of secularism. The court also backed France's rules that head scarves and turbans be removed during routine identity checks by police. 

The so-called 2010 burqa ban has increased tensions with France's Muslim community, which at an estimated four million is western Europe's largest Muslim minority.

Those tensions have occasionally erupted into violence, including riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes in the summer of 2013 after a man was arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer who stopped his wife for wearing a full-face veil.

Attempting to counter a frequent argument in favour of the ban, the plaintiff had emphasised "that neither her husband nor any other member of her family puts pressure on her to dress in this manner."

The plaintiff had said she was willing to remove her veil when required to do so for security reasons but "wishes to be able to wear it when she chooses to do so."

"Her aim is not to annoy others but to feel at inner peace with herself," her statement said.

Lawyers for France argued for her complaint to be dropped outright, noting that the court has rejected two other complaints on the same subject that were prepared by the same law firm and used the same basic arguments.

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In its written arguments, France said the ban is based on "the legitimate goals it pursues, including public security" and that full-face veils are "intrinsically discriminatory against women".

The French veil ban was introduced under former president Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government but has been fully backed by President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialists.

Many Muslims view France, which is officially a secular republic despite being overwhelmingly Catholic, as imposing its values on them and other religious minorities.

France has one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe. Apart from the veil issue, there has been controversy in the past over whether schools and holiday camps should be required to provide halal meals.

Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France's lead in banning full-face veils, while similar bans are being considered in Italy and The Netherlands.

Some British politicians called for veil bans in public buildings last year after a judge ruled that a Muslim woman would be allowed to wear a veil in court but would have to take it off while giving evidence at her trial.

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