PARIS • France's highest administrative court yesterday was examining a request to overturn a ban on the burkini after photographs of police surrounding a woman on a beach fuelled the controversy over the Islamic swimsuit.
France's Human Rights League is appealing against a decision by the southern town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice, which was one of the first of around 30 French towns to ban the burkini.
A court in the Riviera city of Nice upheld the ban this week. The State Council has 48 hours to issue its ruling, which is expected to set a precedent for other towns.
The burkini ban has triggered a fierce debate in France and elsewhere about the wearing of the full-body swimsuit, women's rights and secularism.
Anger over the issue was further inflamed when photographs were published in the British media of police surrounding a veiled woman on a Nice beach removing her tunic.
The Nice mayor's office, however, denied she had been forced to remove clothing, telling AFP the woman was showing police the swimsuit she was wearing under her tunic, over a pair of leggings, when the picture was taken.
We are not at war with Islam... The French republic is welcoming (to Muslims). We are protecting them against discrimination.
FRENCH PRIME MINISTER MANUEL VALLS
IT'S NOT RIGHT
I don't think anyone should tell women what they can and can't wear. Full stop. It's as simple as that.
LONDON MAYOR SADIQ KHAN, condemning the ban.
The police issued her with a fine and she then left the beach, the officials said.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he condemned any "stigmatisation" of Muslims, but maintained that the burkini was "a political sign of religious proselytising".
"We are not at war with Islam... The French republic is welcoming (to Muslims). We are protecting them against discrimination," he told news channel BFMTV.
But in a sign of the divisions within the Socialist government on the issue, Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the "proliferation" of burkini bans "was not a welcome development".
Ms Vallaud-Belkacem, who is of Moroccan origin, took issue with the wording of the ban in Nice which linked the measure to the militant attack in the resort town last month in which 86 people were killed.
"In my opinion, there is nothing to prove that there is a link between the terrorism of Daesh and what a woman wears on a beach," she said, using another term for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But Mr Valls stood firm, saying the ban was necessary to maintain "public order".
The administrative court in Nice ruled on Monday that the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet was "necessary, appropriate and proportionate" to prevent public disorder after the truck attack in Nice and the murder of a Catholic priest by two extremists in northern France.
The burkini was "liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach", and could be seen as "a provocation", it added.
The so-called burkini ban never actually mentions the word burkini, although it is aimed at the garment which covers the hair, but leaves the face visible, and stretches down to the ankles.
The vague wording of the prohibition has caused confusion.
Apart from the incident featured in the photographs in Nice, a mother of two told AFP on Tuesday she had been fined on the beach in the resort of Cannes while wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf.
"I was sitting on a beach with my family. I was wearing a classic headscarf. I had no intention of swimming," said the 34-year-old who gave only her first name, Siam.
Mr Anouar Kbibech, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said he was "concerned over the direction the public debate is taking". Mr Kbibech met Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve over the issue on Wednesday.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital, condemned the ban as he headed to France yesterday for talks with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. "I don't think anyone should tell women what they can and can't wear. Full stop. It's as simple as that," he told the London Evening Standard newspaper.