Paris, Aug 26: France’s highest administrative court on Friday suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has outraged Muslims and opened divisions within the government, pending a definitive ruling.

The Conseil d’Etat gave the ruling following a request from the League of Human Rights to overturn the burkini ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet on the grounds it contravenes civil liberties, The Mirror reported.

The ruling could set a precedent for up to 30 other towns that imposed similar bans. The court will make a final decision on the legality of the bans later.

Amnesty International welcomed the court’s decision. The human rights group’s Europe director, John Dalhuisen, said it had “drawn a line in the sand”.

“French authorities must now drop the pretence that these measures do anything to protect the rights of women. These bans do nothing to increase public safety but do a lot to promote public humiliation,” Dalhuisen added.

Opinions polls suggested most French people backed the bans, which town mayors said were protecting public order and secularism, BBC reported.

But Muslims in France said they were being targeted unfairly.

The court said local authorities did not have the power to restrict individual liberties in this way without “proven risk” to public order.

According to the Independent, terror analysts have warned that the ban would fuel jihadi propaganda as terrorist groups like Islamic State attempt to portray France and other Western countries as at war with Muslims.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking nomination in 2017 presidential election race, said he would bring in a nationwide burkini ban if elected to his former post.

While launching his campaign to succeed President Francois Hollande in the 2017 presidential election, Sarkozy late on Thursday discussed issues of French identity and the nationwide ban on Islamic veils.

He added that his party wishes to expand the 2004 law to bring the ban to all public spaces which affects those who wear the Islamic head covering, but also those who carry large Christian crosses in full view or wear the Jewish skullcap.

Some bans have alluded to a threat to public order, while other mayors have specifically put them in the context of terror attacks, extremism and fear.

Sarkozy controversially labelled the swimwear a “provocation” earlier this week.

Sarkozy declared that wearing a burkini was “a political act, militant, a provocation” that supports radicalised Islam, amid a heated debate over a ban on the swimwear, the Independent reported.

“If we do not put an end to this, there is a risk that in 10 years, young Muslim girls who do not want to wear the veil or burkini will be stigmatised and peer-pressured,” Sarkozy added.

Australian designer weighs in

Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s controversial comments on the burkini earned a sharp rebuke from the woman who created the burkini — the Lebanese born Australian designer Aheda Zanetti.

Burkini fitting session by designer Zanetti @gandernews
Burkini fitting session by designer Zanetti @gandernews

“I truly, truly believe that the French have misunderstood and that they don’t know what a burkini looks like and what it represents,” the Guardian quoted Zanetti as saying.

“For someone to bring out a statement like that on a piece of clothing that is about joy … he doesn’t know what he is talking about. He needs to go to the beach and maybe ask, what is a burkini swimsuit?

“Burkini is just a word that describes a full cover swimsuit and it doesn’t symbolise anything to do with Muslims. It’s about encouraging our kids and children to learn how to swim,” Zanetti added.

Zanetti, originally from Lebanon, lives in Bankstown, Sydney, and is the founder and designer of Burkini – Ahiida swimwear in 2000. 

Her first model was then 20-year-old Muslim lifesaver Mecca Laa Laa, in her red-and-yellow hooded burkini.

“This swimsuit represents integration, female rights, Australian lifestyle, freedom and independence,” says Aheda.

Nice is the most recent French resort to ban the burkini worn by Muslim women, following bans in the Corsican town of Disco, and the Riviera resorts of Cannes and Villeneuve-Loubet.

In recent days, several women were fined in France for wearing the burkini.

Controversy over burkini bans heightened on Tuesday after photographs emerged showing four police officers armed with handguns, batons and pepper spray undressing a burkini-clad Muslim woman publicly in Nice.

France has also banned the wearing of burqua in public places for security reasons.

Earlier, this year, German swimming pool had also banned the burkini, and when one swimmer during a women-only day opted to wear a burkini, her attire led to complaints from other women at the pool and was also criticized by the town’s mayor, Heinz Kiechle.

“Why the burqini as a full-body suit would be necessary to wear during a women’s swim day is for me incomprehensible,” he said, as quoted by The Local.

Kiechle also told Mittelbayerische that it “contradicts the basic idea of integration and mutual recognition which is always being discussed in many towns”.

Sarkozy, who served as French President from 2007 to 2012, is campaigning to be the conservative candidate for next year’s elections.

Ramakrishna VenuGopal

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