French court upholds Cannes burkini ban

A model wears an Islamic swimsuit, or burqini, in a file photo.
A model wears an Islamic swimsuit, or burqini, in a file photo.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - The French resort of Cannes won court backing for its “burkini ban” on Saturday (Aug 13) as a judge refused to overturn its decision to forbid Muslim women from wearing the full-body swimsuit.

Local authorities in the Riviera city, home to the famous Cannes film festival, moved to ban burkinis from beaches at the end of July. The nearby resort of Villeneuve-Loubet followed suit on Saturday.

Three women backed by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) challenged the Cannes decision in court on Friday, saying it was illegal and calling for it to be suspended.

But a court in Nice rejected the request, saying the move was legal under French law forbidding people from “invoking their religious beliefs to skirt common rules regulating relations between public authorities and private individuals”.

The judge noted that the Cannes ban had been declared “in the context of the state of emergency and recent Islamist attacks, notably in Nice a month ago”.

“The wearing of distinctive clothing, other than that usually worn for swimming, can indeed only be interpreted in this context as a straightforward symbol of religiosity,” the ruling said.

CCIF lawyer Sefen Guez Guez said he would appeal the decision before France’s highest administrative court, adding: “This decision opens the door to a ban on all religious symbols in the public space.”

Anti-racism groups have expressed outrage at the burkini bans, which come at a highly sensitive time following a series of militant attacks in France.

Islamic dress has long been a hot-button issue in secular France, where the full-face veil is banned in public places. But there is no ban on wearing religious symbols or clothing.

Cannes mayor David Lisnard said he had signed off on the burkini ban out of “respect for good customs and secularism”, a founding principle of the French republic.

In nearby Villeneuve-Loubet, mayor Lionnel Luca had a different justification for banning the garment, saying he made the decision for sanitary reasons.

“I was informed that there was a couple on one of our beaches where the wife was swimming fully dressed,” said.

“I considered that unacceptable for hygienic reasons and that in general it was unwelcome.”

He disputing charges that the burkini ban was discriminatory, saying it was intended “to avoid any disturbance to public order in the region which was hit by attacks”.

Burkinis have also been in the headlines in France this week after a waterpark in the city of Marseille cancelled plans to host a private event for women wearing burkinis, following a public uproar.

France has been hit by three major terror attacks in 18 months, and the Islamic State group claimed two assaults on French territory in July.

On July 14, Nice was the target of an attack claimed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)  which killed 85 people, when an Algerian ploughed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day.

And on July 26, a priest was killed in his church in northwestern France by two attackers who had proclaimed their allegiance to ISIS.