Is the French Ban on the Burqini Legal?

The country’s highest administrative court will rule Friday whether the full-body swimsuit can be worn on public beaches.

A woman wearing a burqini in Marseilles, France
A woman wearing a burqini in Marseilles, France (Reuters )

NEWS BRIEF The burqini ban, which has spread across 26 French towns, was presented Thursday before the State Council, France’s highest administrative court, Agence-France Presse reports.

France’s Human Rights League (LDH) and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) appealed a lower court decision Monday in Nice that upheld the proscription of the swimwear on beaches in Villeneuve-Loubet, one of the first towns to institute the ban.

The lower court’s ruling said the ban was “necessary, appropriate, and proportionate” to preventing public disorder, arguing the swimsuit favored by some Muslim women could be interpreted as a provocation. Patrice Spinosi, the LDH lawyer, called the move “a serious and manifestly illegal infringement” of individual’s fundamental freedoms.

The high court’s ruling, which is expected to be announced Friday, will set a legal precedent for towns to observe across the country.

The high court’s decision comes amid a nationwide debate over whether the conservative swimwear has a place in France’s secular society—a debate which intensified Tuesday after photos surfaced of four policemen fining a woman for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism” while she lounged on the shores of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

The views of French lawmakers reflect the vocal debate on the burqini. Prime Minister Manuel Valls backed the ban adopted by mayors across the country last week on the grounds the swimsuit “is not compatible with the values of France and the Republic.” But not all lawmakers in Valls’s Socialist party agree. Najat Belkacem, the minister of education, condemned the ban for prompting “racist speech.”

“The anti-burqini arrests free racist speech, this constitutes a serious political drift,” Belkacem tweeted.

A study conducted by Ifop for Le Figaro found the debate to be less stark among the French public. Of the 1,001 people surveyed, 64 percent opposed allowing burqinis on French beaches, with 6 percent supporting and 30 percent saying they were indifferent.

Religious dress has long been a source of contention in France, whose secular laws prohibit displays of religion in certain settings. In 2010, the country became the first in Europe to ban the burqa, a full-faced veil favored by some Muslim women, in public. In 2004, religious symbols—including headscarves, yarmulkes, and large crosses—were banned from public schools.

Aheda Zanetti, the founder of the Burqini brand from which full-body swimsuits of that style get their name, addressed the controversy surrounding her swimsuit design Wednesday in The Guardian. She wrote:

When I invented the burkini in early 2004, it was to give women freedom, not to take it away. … I wanted to find something that would adapt to the Australian lifestyle and western clothing but at the same time fulfill the needs of a Muslim girl.

The State Council’s decision is expected to be announced Friday.