European court backs French ban on full-faced veil

Tue Jul 1, 2014 12:18pm EDT
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By Gilbert Reilhac and Alexandria Sage

STRASBOURG/PARIS (Reuters) - The European Court of Human Rights upheld France's 2010 ban on full-face veils in public on Tuesday but acknowledged the law could appear excessive and feed stereotypes.

Judges at the Strasbourg-based court, by 15 to 2, said the ban did not violate religious freedom and aimed to ensure "respect for the minimum set of values of an open democratic society" which included openness to social interaction.

In their ruling, which cannot be appealed, the judges "accepted that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of 'living together'" that France defended in its argument, the court said in a statement.

It was the first time the court has ruled on niqab and burqa veils, which have stoked controversy in several European states although few women wear them. A French Muslim woman filed the suit for discrimination and breach of religious freedom

France has both the largest Muslim minority in Europe, estimated at 5 million, and some of the continent's most restrictive laws about expressions of faith in public.

Amnesty International said in a statement the ruling was "deeply damaging", representing "a profound retreat for the right to freedom of expression and religion."

But Abdallah Zekri, an official of the French Muslim Council that represents most leading mosque associations in France, said the wearing of the full-faced veil was "Salafist dogma" and those who wore it transgressed the law. "I hope that this decision, which comes during the month of Ramadan, a sensitive time, doesn't become an excuse to rekindle the flame," Zekri told Reuters.

France, under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, was the first European country to pass a law banning burqa and niqab garments that conceal the face in public. Belgium later followed suit, as did the Swiss canton of Ticino.   Continued...

A women, wearing a niqab despite a nationwide ban on the Islamic face veil, gives a phone call outside the courts in Meaux, east of Paris, September 22, 2011.  REUTERS/Charles Platiau