France’s highest court suspends burkini ban in test case

France’s highest administrative court has suspended a ban on the burkini in a test case brought by human rights groups, pending a definitive ruling.

The ruling from the state council suspends a single ban in the southern town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, but is likely to set a precedent for other towns that have prohibited the full-body swimwear on their beaches.

Under the French legal system, temporary decisions can be handed down before the court takes more time to prepare a judgment on the underlying legality of the case.

The bans – made in the form of mayoral decrees – followed the Bastille Day attack in Nice and the murder of a priest in Normandy.

They do not explicitly use the word burkini but instead ban “beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation”, citing reasons such as the need to protect public order, hygiene or French laws on secularism.

At a hearing before the state council on Thursday, lawyers for the rights groups in the Villeneuve-Loubet case argued that the bans were feeding fear and infringe on basic freedom.

A lower court had ruled on Monday that the Villeneuve-Loubet ban was necessary to prevent public disorder.

The row over burkinis has intensified after a woman in a headscarf was photographed on a beach in Nice removing a long-sleeved top while surrounded by armed police.

The city banned the burkini on its beaches last week, following about 15 seaside areas in south-east France where mayors had done the same.

The bans have divided France’s government and society and drawn anger abroad. The former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, used the first of rally of his campaign for the 2017 election to call for a nationwide ban on the swimsuits, while the Socialist government has become divided, with the prime minister and one of its leading feminist voices at cabinet-level taking opposing positions.

The burkini bans have prompted a row over the French principle of laïcité – secularism – amid accusations that politicians are twisting and distorting this principle for political gain, and using it to target Muslims.

The French republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. In theory, the state is neutral in terms of religion and allows everyone the freedom to practise their faith as long as there is no threat to public order.

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