France’s highest administrative court has suspended a controversial ban on full-body “burkini” swimsuits, pending a definitive ruling.
The State Council gave the ruling on Friday following a request from the League of Human Rights to overturn the ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds it contravenes civil liberties.
The court said in a statement that the decree to ban burkinis in Villeneuve-Loubet “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom”.
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 ruling is likely to set a precedent for about 30 French towns which have banned the burkini, mostly along the southeast coast.
A court in the Riviera resort of Nice upheld the ban earlier this week.
The burkini bans have triggered a fierce debate about the wearing of the full-body swimsuit, women’s rights and the French state’s strictly guarded secularism.
President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that life in France “supposes that everyone sticks to the rules and that there is neither provocation nor stigmatisation”.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Thursday 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 BFMTV.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who announced he will run in the election in 2017, said if he becomes leader again he would ban the full-body swimsuit.
Amnesty International welcomed the ruling.
“By overturning a discriminatory ban that is fuelled by and is fuelling prejudice and intolerance, today’s decision has drawn an important line in the sand,” Amnesty’s Europe director John Dalhuisen said.
“French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women,” he said.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith hailed the ruling as a “victory for common sense”.
The State Council heard arguments from the Human Rights League and an anti-Islamophobia group.
Anger over the issue was further inflamed this week when photographs in the British media showed police surrounding a woman in a headscarf on a beach in Nice as she removed a long-sleeved top.
France was the first European country to ban the wearing of the Islamic face veil in public in 2010.