A sizzling summer controversy over burkini bans in France returned to the spotlight in midwinter Thursday, as a Corsican administrative court upheld a local decree against the Muslim swimming garment in one village, but struck down a similar ban elsewhere due to a lack of evidence that it was a threat to public order.
The decision by the court in Bastia, in northeastern Corsica, came at a time when Islam and the visibility of France’s estimated five million Muslims is becoming a political flashpoint, ahead of presidential elections in April.
The French League of Human Rights said it would appeal the ruling that validated a burkini ban in the village of Sisco on the Mediterranean island. The local mayor had argued it was necessary to institute the clothing restriction following a brawl between local youths and families of North African origin last August in which five people were hurt.
“This decision does not satisfy us at all,” said Michel Tubiana, honorary president of the rights group. He said the ruling was a dangerous element in a broader anti-Muslim discourse simmering in France.
In contrast to the decision affecting Sisco village, the court rejected a similar ban enacted by another Corsican village, Ghisonaccio, where the mayor offered no specific evidence that burkini-clad women presented a law-and-order problem.
'Ban deters troublemakers'
Sisco’s mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni could not be reached for comment Thursday, but he had said earlier the burkini ban would go into effect in June, “simply because I’m worried that Sisco will attract troublemakers.”
Corsica has witnessed a number of anti-Muslim incidents in recent years.
Roughly 30 coastal towns embraced burkini bans last year, even though the garment was a rarity on their beaches. Many mayors defied a ruling by France’s highest administrative tribunal that banning the garments violated “fundamental freedoms.”
Rights groups argue the bans violate the right of free expression. Some even argue the burkini is liberating, since it allows more conservative Muslim women to venture out on beaches.
The issue cuts to the heart of France’s staunchly secular creed, illustrating deep differences over the extent that such rules protect or limit religious visibility. France separately has banned the wearing of veils in public schools and the face-covering niqab in all public spaces.
Are such bans anti-Muslim?
A string of terror attacks has fueled political support for France's far right. National Front candidate Marine Le Pen wants to ban the Muslim veil and Jewish kippah on streets, while center-right frontrunner Francois Fillon wants to keep existing legislation.
“The discourse has become anti-Muslim, which is feeding suspicion against the community, even preventing them from practicing their faith,” said Tubiana of the rights league. “All of this is creating sometimes serious social problems.”
On the left, former prime minister Manual Valls, who is facing a runoff vote in the Socialist primaries Sunday, supported the mayors’ burkini bans, denouncing the bathing garment as “an affirmation of political Islam in the public space.”
His rival, Benoit Hamon, who is expected to win the runoff, disagrees.
“Let’s stop making Islam appear as a problem for the republic,” Hamond said in a radio interview this week. He called for less discussion over the burkini and more targeting bread-and-butter issues important to French voters.