French towns do not have the right to ban the now-controversial burkini, a modest bathing ensemble preferred by some Muslim women because it covers their bodies.
Ruling on Friday, France's highest administrative court delegitimized a ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, near Nice; Nice was the site of a July terrorist attack. The court’s ruling, which said the ban violates civil liberties, including freedom of movement and religious freedom, could affect more than 30 French towns that have also banned the swim attire, which is designed to cover everything but the face, hands, and feet.
Cannes Mayor David Lisnard, who issued an ordinance to ban the swim attire in late July, called the burkini "the symbol of Islamic extremism, not of the Muslim religion." The Cannes rule forbids attire that is "not respectful of good morals and secularism," as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.
But the ordinances in Cannes and other French towns have been widely criticized for stirring fear and intolerance. They gained widespread international attention after striking images circulated in the press and on social media this week showing armed police forcing a woman on the beach to remove her tunic.
Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer for the Human Rights League in Paris, which has fought the ban, called the ruling a “victory” that sets a legal precedent. She said the group will now ask other mayors to reverse their bans.
“The council has ruled and has showed that mayors do not have the right to set limits on wearing religious signs in public spaces, it is contrary to the freedom of religion, which is a fundamental freedom,” Mr. Spinosi told The New York Times.
As the Times points out, most of the towns’ prohibitions are temporary through the holiday season. The restrictions in Villeneuve-Loubet were set to end on Sept. 15.
France has already banned other religious attire. In 2011, it became the first European country to ban the burqa, a full-body covering, and the full-face veil, considered essential attire outside the home among some Muslim women. Before that, in 2004, the French government banned Muslim headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in schools.
Germany intends to ban full-face veils in places where identification is required, such as schools or government offices, to promote security and national cohesion, according to Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere. Many other countries have banned the attire in order to show action against terrorism.
"Since the rise of Islamophobia, legislating against the burqa and other forms of religious dress is low hanging fruit for politicians, while doing very little to address the root causes, which are far more complicated and nebulous than banning a form of dress," Nesrine Malik, a columnist for The Guardian, told CNN.