European rights court puts France burqa ban in spotlight
The European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday began an examination of France's prohibition on the wearing of full-face veils, the so-called 'burqa ban' that is seen by critics as a breach of religious freedom.
By coincidence, the Strasbourg-based court began studying the contentious issue on the same day that an appeal court in Paris upheld the right of a nursery to fire a female employee who insisted on wearing an Islamic headscarf at work.
Both cases have been subject to long-running legal battles which have pitted France's long-standing secular traditions against sections of the country's large Muslim minority.
The case before the human rights court was brought by a 23-year-old French graduate who has family in Birmingham, England and who requested anonymity because of concern over the reaction to her lawsuit in France. A ruling in the case is expected early next year.
The woman, identified only by her initials S.A.S. and her British legal team are seeking to persuade the rights court to categorise the French law as essentially discriminatory.
She argues that the burqa ban violates her rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a prohibition against discrimination.
In written evidence, she has testified that she is not constrained to wear the burqa by any man and that she is willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons -- directly addressing the French authorities' two main arguments in favour of the ban.
"Wearing a burqa is not a sign of extremism," one of her lawyers, Ramby De Mello, told the court.
France's lead counsel Edwige Belliard said the ban related to all means of covering the face, including motorbike helmets and balaclava-style headwear, as well as veils. "It is a law designed to promote living together, it is not an anti-religious law," she said.
The French veil ban was introduced under former president Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government but has been fully backed by the current Socialist government.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said recently the ban was "a law against practices that have nothing to do with our traditions and our values".
Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France's lead and similar bans are being considered in Italy and The Netherlands.
Under the French law, approved in 2010 and implemented the following year, women wearing full-face veils in public spaces can be fined up to 150 euros ($203).
Attempts to enforce the legislation have proved problematic with some arrests sparking confrontations, including one which triggered riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes earlier this year.
In the Paris nursery case, the appeal court overturned a controversial March 2013 verdict that the "Baby-Wolf" kindergarten had been guilty of religious discrimination when it dismissed Fatima Afif in 2008.
Afif was sacked after telling her employer that, on her return to work following a five-year maternity break, she wished to wear a headscarf at work.
The head of the day nursery refused, citing the establishment's rules that employees had to be neutral in terms of philosophy, politics and faith. That led to a stand-off and Afif being made redundant.
Wednesday's verdict supporting the nursery's action was hailed as a landmark decision by supporters of secular education.
But it was denounced by Muslim organisations who see the emphasis put on secular principles as a way of singling out their community and it is unlikely to be the end of the case.
Lawyers for Afif, 44, said it was "very probable" that they would launch another appeal and she has said she is prepared to take her case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
In a recent interview she said she felt emancipated by her decision to wear the veil whenever she was in public and insisted: "I am not the standard bearer for any cause, I'm only seeking justice."
Afif's lawyer Michel Henry said Wednesday the judge had bowed to political pressure.
"They decided the verdict they wanted then filled in the blanks," he said. "They have invented a legal requirement, the freedom of conscience for very small children, for which there is no provision in law."
Any overt religious symbols -- headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or Sikh turbans for example -- are banned from French state schools, which operate on strictly secular lines.
But the Court of Cassation, France's highest court of appeal, ruled in March that the principles underpinning this legislation could not be applied to a private nursery and that Afif's right to express her religious faith therefore prevailed.
© 2013 AFP