GENEVA (AFP) - The UN Human Rights Committee on Tuesday (Oct 23) criticised France's so-called burqa ban, saying the law "violated" the rights of two women who were fined for wearing full-face veils in public.
The committee called for the women to be compensated and for a review of the 2010 law that forbids people from publicly wearing clothing that conceals their face.
"The French law disproportionately harmed the petitioners' right to manifest their religious beliefs," the committee said in a statement.
It added it was not convinced by France's claim that the ban was necessary for security and social reasons.
The two French women were convicted in 2012 for wearing the niqab, a veil with a slit for the eyes.
"The ban, rather than protecting fully veiled women, could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them," the committee said.
Responding to the criticism, the French foreign ministry said covering one's face was "incompatible with the principle of fraternity and the basic values of a democratic and open society".
The ministry noted that the European Court of Human Rights had found the ban did not violate niqab wearers' religious freedom, and said it would argue its position in a report to the UN committee on the law.
The UN committee, which is made up of independent experts, ensures countries stick to their human rights commitments but does not have enforcement powers.
It said the French ban was "too sweeping" but that governments could still make people show their faces in specific circumstances.
The decision reignites a debate that has raged in France for years over Muslim headwear and other religious clothing.
The debate has regularly pitted supporters of France's secular constitution against those who argue for religious freedoms.
The 2010 law had strong public support when brought in under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, but many said it targeted a tiny minority of Muslim women in France who wear full-face veils.
Condemned by critics for pandering to far-right voters but backed by many women's rights activists, the law made France the first European country to ban garments that cover the face.
An estimated five million Muslims live in France and women who ignore the ban can be fined up to €150 (S$230).
"The vast majority of cases where people have been stopped for checks and have been condemned to fines... have been women wearing the niqab," committee member Ilze Brands-Kehris told AFP.
"In the context of fewer than 2,000 women wearing the full-face veil in France... (the law has) a vast disproportionate effect on those women."
Other EU countries, including Denmark, Austria and Belgium, have also implemented similar full-face veil bans.
'OPPRESSION OF WOMEN'
The committee's stance contrasts with a 2014 European Court of Human Rights ruling which upheld the French ban.
The court found that France was justified in introducing the ban in the interests of social cohesion as it was "not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing".
In August, the committee also criticised France over the 2008 sacking of a employee worker who refused to remove her veil at work, arguing it interfered with her right to express her religion.
The so-called Baby Loup case, named after the nursery, had already faced multiple legal battles in the French courts.
Debate about the effectiveness of the "burqa ban" also made headlines this month after it was revealed that French gangster Redoine Faid, who broke out of jail in July using a helicopter and was recaptured three months later, had at times worn a burqa as a disguise.
Police say Faid was caught after officers saw someone wearing a burqa but walking like a man.