A top French court has, at least for now, struck down a ban by local authorities on the burkini, the modest swimwear worn by some observant Muslim women that has turned into a national controversy.
After police issued dozens of tickets to women wearing burkinis on beaches, and after video emerged of police forcing women to disrobe in order to adhere to municipal bans, the ban by the town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the Riviera was challenged to the country's highest administrative court, the State Council.
A final decision is still pending but, as of right now, the ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet is no longer in effect. While the ruling doesn't directly speak to the bans the other towns that have implemented the ban, the ruling is a clear sign that their interdictions aren't legally sound. In all, 31 communities in France implemented the ban, including the popular tourist destinations of Nice and Cannes.
French newspaper Le Monde reached out to those communities and found that only four has gone after burkini-sporting women this summer, but that they had issued 32 tickets between them.
Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer for the Human Rights League, which had launched the challenge to the bans, told reporters in front of the court that the decision has the potential to inform future challenges to other bans on religious symbols in public places.
"The decision could be translated into other spaces of law," Spinosi said.
The court, he said, ruled that, in order to issue an interdiction on religious garb in public, there must be a threat to public order.
The mayoral decrees that prohibited the burkinis technically banned all beachwear that "ostentatiously displays religious affiliation," but were clearly designed to target the modest dress that has become extremely popular with more conservative Muslim women.
"A mayor, by himself, cannot ban religious symbols," said Spinosi. "It's disproportionate."
The ruling reverses a lower court decision that upheld the ban.
"It's a decision of principles," Spinosi told reporters.
The decision was passed down on Friday afternoon in Paris, but promises not to put the issue to bed entirely.
Ange-Pierre Vivoni, the mayor of the town of Sisco on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, vowed on BFM TV that he would not repeal his town's ban simply because of the court's decision.
Nicholas Sarkozy, the former president who is running in his center-right party's presidential primaries for the 2017 election, has also vowed to implement the ban nationwide.
The decision was immediately heralded as a victory by Amnesty International.
"By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fuelled by and is fuelling prejudice and intolerance, today's decision has drawn an important line in the sand," John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe Director, said in a statement.
"French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women."
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