PARIS — Human rights groups challenged the legality of municipal bans on full-body burkini swimsuits before France’s highest administrative court Thursday, a practice that one lawyer fiercely denounced as reflecting “a reflex of fear.”
The three-judge Council of State heard arguments from both sides and said it would issue its ruling Friday over whether to overturn the locally ordered bans. They have elicited shock and anger worldwide after photos this week appeared to show police instructing one Muslim sunbather to remove her body-concealing tunic in Nice, scene of last month’s truck slaughter.
The legal fight over the right of Muslim women to wear burkinis has fired a national debate over the place of Islam in France, a strictly secular country, and fueled concerns at home and abroad that some French mayors are overstepping their powers.
Pleading in a courtroom packed with journalists, legal experts and ordinary citizens, the lawyers for two human rights groups expressed fears that the bans on wearing any religious garments on beaches, if upheld by the court, would be extended to public transportation networks and other public places.
“France has lost any sense of proportion in this matter. The Council of State must be a compass in the tempest and show the right way,” said Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer for the Human Rights League. “The bans have been issued by a reflex of fear.”
Spinosi argued that, before about 30 coastal towns and cities introduced the ban, there weren’t “any riots on the beaches.” He said the bans, by contrast, had stirred “disruption to public order,” driven by the sight of police issuing fines to Muslim women on some Riviera beaches.
Divisions have emerged in President Francois Hollande’s government over the bans, and protests have been held in London and Berlin by those defending women’s right to wear what they want on the beach.
Critics of the local decrees have said the orders are too vague, prompting local police officials to fine women wearing the traditional Islamic headscarf and the hijab, not burkinis. The bans do not generally use the word “burkini” but forbid any clothing that is deemed overtly religious.
Thursday’s arguments focused on a ban in the Riviera town of Villeneuve-Loubet, but Friday’s binding decision will set a legal precedent on whether any municipality can tell Muslim women what to wear on the beach.
Francois Pinatel, the lawyer for the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, acknowledged the mayor’s order had infringed basic freedoms but argued this was legal because the decree was intended to safeguard public order following the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.
“There is a climate of absolute tension in the region with an extremely explosive situation,” Pinatel told the judges.
Parallel to Thursday’s court deliberations, public debate continued even among cabinet ministers.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said burkinis represent the “enslavement of women.” He urged police to enforce the bans fairly and respectfully.
Hollande himself has remained neutral on the issue, arguing that society “presumes that each person conforms to the rules, and that there is neither provocation nor stigmatization.”
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a feminist with North African roots, argued that while she doesn’t like the burkini swimsuit, banning the garment amounted to a politically driven act that encouraged racism. Health Minister Marisol Touraine took a similar stance.
In London, about 30 demonstrators threw a “wear what you want” beach party Thursday outside the French Embassy.
Recent militant attacks on France don’t justify “men with weapons standing over a woman telling her what not to wear. That’s not a sight that any of us should stand for,” said church curate Jenny Dawkins, 40, one of the protesters.
In Berlin, about 60 people — some wearing burkinis, others bikinis — protested outside the French embassy in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
The Human Rights League and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France —the other rights group pursuing Thursday’s lawsuit — say the Villeneuve-Loubet mayor’s decree violates basic freedoms of dress, religious expression and movement.
The Villeneuve-Loubet order bars from beaches anyone whose garments don’t respect the principles of secularism, health and safety, and good moral standards.
On Monday, a lower court in Nice ruled that the Villeneuve-Loubet ban was “necessary, appropriate and proportionate.” The administrative court added that wearing “conspicuous” religious clothing on the beach may be seen as a “provocation” and increase tensions.
The Nice court said that burkinis can be viewed as “erasing” women from the public eye and “a lowering of their place.”
Religious clothing is particularly sensitive in France, where an unusually large part of the population has no religious affiliation. The first provision in France’s constitution declares it is “a secular republic.”
Story: Philippe Sotto