In a judgement expected to lead to bans being overturned in around 30 coastal towns, the State Council, France's highest administrative court, ruled Friday the measure was a “serious and clearly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms”.
The suspension of the ban on the Islamic swimsuit, which has triggered a fierce debate in France and sparked critical headlines around the world, was welcomed by the UN, and a French Muslim group said it was a “victory for common sense”.
But the ruling, which only applied to the ban imposed by Villeneuve-Loubet, was quickly dismissed by several other towns, including Nice, which vowed to keep the restrictions in place and continue imposing fines on women who wear the full-body swimsuit.
In its decision, the court said local authorities could only introduce measures restricting individual freedoms if wearing the swimsuit on beaches represented a “proven risk” to public order.
The judges said there was no such risk in the case before the court concerning Villeneuve-Loubet, a resort between Nice and Cannes.
Police action to fine Muslim women for wearing burqinis on beaches in several towns, including in the tourist resorts of Nice and Cannes, has triggered a fierce debate about women's rights and the French state's strictly-guarded secularism.
“From now on, it is up to everyone to take responsibility for cooling off, which is the only way to avoid public order disturbances and to try and live together,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
Restrictions 'still valid'
But the ruling provoked defiance from several Riviera resorts, which pledged to continue imposing fines.
In recent weeks, around 30 French municipalities decided to ban access to public beaches “by anyone not wearing proper attire, which is respectful of good morality and the principle of secularism and not respectful of the rules of hygiene and bathing security”.
Nice town hall said it would “continue to fine” women wearing the burqini and the far-right mayor of Frejus, David Rachline, insisted his ban was “still valid”, telling AFP there was “no legal procedure” against his ruling.
Ange-Pierre Vivoni, Socialist mayor of the Corsican town of Sisco, said his burqini ban, introduced this month following a confrontation between Moroccan bathers and locals, would also remain “for the safety of property and people in the town because I risked having deaths on my hands”.
Amnesty International said Friday's court decision had “drawn an important line in the sand”.
“These bans do nothing to increase public safety but do a lot to promote public humiliation,” said Amnesty's Europe director John Dalhuisen, who added it was time that the French authorities “drop the pretence” that the ban was about protecting women's rights.
The debate has split both the left and the right, with former presiden Nicolas Sarkozy calling for a nationwide ban on the burqini, while former premier Alain Juppe has expressed opposition to “an exceptional law”.
The ruling Socialists are also divided, with Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and Health Minister Marisol Touraine concerned over the “drift” in the local orders, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls backed the mayors.
He stuck to his guns Friday evening, saying the State Council's ruling”does not end the debate which has been opened”.
“It is a fundamental debate, which follows on from others,” he said, recalling that France was the first country in Europe to ban the full veil in public spaces in 2010. The headscarf was banned from schools in 2004.
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.
The mayor's office denied the woman had been forced to remove clothing, telling AFP she was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her top, over a pair of leggings, when the picture was taken.
In its ruling, the State Council said: “The emotion and the concerns arising from terrorist attacks, especially the attack in Nice on July 14, are not sufficient to legally justify a ban.”