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Burkini ban in France: High court to rule on legality

France's top court, the State Council, will consider the question of a burkini ban for French beaches after a turbulent and religiously charged year.

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Muslim swimming instructor Fadila Chafic wears her full-length 'burkini' swimsuit during a swimming lesson with her children Taaleen (r.) and Ibrahim at swimming pool in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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After several French cities banned the full body swimsuit called the “burkini,” legal challenges to the ban fell flat. France’s highest court, the State Council, will consider an appeal Thursday.

The “burkini” ban has been controversial for its interpretation of the freedom of religion and human rights. While many critics of the ban say that it prevents Muslim women from practicing their faith in public, others say that the charged climate provoked by several recent terrorist attacks in France makes the ban a necessary part of maintaining public order.

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In late July, the mayor of the seaside resort city Cannes issued the first burkini ban, saying that the swimming costume was a symbol of religious extremism.

"Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks,” reads Cannes’ ordinance, “is liable to create risks of disrupting public order."

Cannes’ decision to ban the burkini was followed by a similar bans in 14 other French towns, including the Nice-area town of Villeneuve-Loubet.

The controversy over these local ordinances has prompted an international conversation among a number of organizations and individuals who are both for and against the ban.

When the Cannes ban was first announced, at least two human rights groups announced their intentions to challenge it. The French group Collective Against Islamophobia and a group called the Human Rights League were both prepared to issue legal challenges, and other political commentators noted the dubious legality of the ban.

“The effect on society [of the burkini ban] is disastrous,” said Michel Tubiana, president of the Human Rights League, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford. “It radicalizes both sides, it raises tensions and it encourages isolationism in the Muslim community.”

A French administrative tribunal upheld that ban, however, as well as Villeneuve-Loubet’s ban, prompting lawyers to appeal to France’s highest court. That hearing is scheduled to take place Thursday.

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In rejecting the appeal of the Villeneuve-Loubet ban, the administrative tribunal ruled the ban “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” to prevent the bathing suits being seen as a threat to a tense and beleaguered society.

Veiling "is the expression of a political project, a counter-society,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls, “based notably on the enslavement of women.”

Others, however, say that the swimsuit bans are discriminatory, noting that individuals from other religions are allowed to wear symbols of their religion on the beach – including crosses.

Three women were fined 38 Euros apiece over the weekend in Cannes, after they wore burkini swimsuits to the beach in defiance of the ban.

One of the women, a mother of two, told AFP that she was not even wearing a burkini – simply a regular headscarf. She said she was fined for not "respecting good morals and secularism."