It's about much, much more than swimwear.
The highest administrative court in France on Friday suspended one town's ban on full-body bathing suits — often called burkinis — in a closely watched ruling likely to set a legal precedent across the country.
The court declared that banning the body-concealing bathing apparel sometimes worn by observant Muslim women went against fundamental civil liberties.
More than two dozen French towns have adopted a similar prohibition — a chain reaction that sprang up in the weeks after a devastating truck rampage in the Riviera resort city of Nice on July 14, Bastille Day, which left 86 dead and hundreds injured.
In France, home of Europe's largest Muslim community, the bans have touched a social and cultural nerve, triggering highly fraught debate turning on national identity, security fears, immigration, women's rights and the social role of religion, among other questions.
Most of the municipal bans cite the threat to public order as a concern; the court ruled that the existence of such a threat had not been clearly established — and that in its absence, the prohibition could not be legally justified.
Friday's ruling was limited in scope, affecting only the ban in the Mediterranean town of Villeneuve-Loubet — an opening salvo in what is likely to be a drawn-out legal and political fight.
The conservative mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, Lionnel Luca, denounced the ruling, saying it would inflame passions rather than calming them.
But opponents of the swimwear restrictions hailed the decision. Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory against Islamaphobia, called it a “victory for the law and for wisdom.” Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for
This week, pictures of a woman in a headscarf and long tunic on a Riviera beach, surrounded by armed police and apparently being ordered to shed a long-sleeved covering, touched off an online firestorm.
Police officials denied their officers had asked her to remove any clothing, but the widely shared photo drew expressions of disapproval and incredulity from outside France, propelling the issue into the international spotlight.
Some supporters of the ban say traditional Muslim standards of dress, including headscarves and face veils, are a means of oppressing women; many Muslim women have retorted that they alone should have the right to decide whether to cover up.
One of the groups that brought the case before the court, the Human Rights League, says other municipalities must also accept Friday's decision. The court, known as the Council of State, asserted that banning the swimwear "seriously and clearly illegally" violated freedom of belief and individual liberties.
"It is a decision that is meant to set legal precedent," said lawyer Patrice Spinosi, according to the Associated Press.
Several municipalities besides Villeneuve-Loubet also signaled defiance, suggesting that women in burkinis would continue to face fines.
Some national politicians, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, have defended the bans as adhering to the country's system of strict secularism, known as laicite, while human rights groups and others describe them as scapegoating of Muslims following a string of jihadist-style attacks.
Over the summer, France was deeply shaken by not only the slaughter in Nice, carried out by a Tunisian deliveryman, but also the killing two weeks later of a Roman Catholic priest celebrating Mass in northern France. The priest's attackers, who were killed by police, were teenagers who had declared their loyalty to the militants of Islamic State.
The issue is already strongly coloring next year's elections. Conservative former President Nicolas Sarkozy, seeking to unseat Socialist Francois Hollande, has voiced strong support for a nationwide burkini ban.
And Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, demanded that lawmakers vote to widen a 2004 law banning the display of ostentatious religious symbols in classrooms, extending that prohibition to all public spaces. Full-face coverings are already illegal in public places, including schools.
The municipal bans, most of which follow similar wording, do not refer explicitly to the full-body bathing suits, but instead prohibit beachwear that makes an overt statement of religious faith.
One Twitter user sarcastically tweeted a photo of a group of nuns in their habits wading in the surf, asking whether they should be ordered to strip down.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it would not be appropriate to "second-guess" France's debate over security measures, but pointed out President Obama's strong belief in freedom of religion.
Special correspondent Willsher reported from Paris and Times staff writer King from Washington.
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2:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional reaction.
12:10 p.m.: This article has been updated with more reaction to the ruling.
9:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting.