Judges at the European court of human rights (ECHR) have upheld France’s burqa ban, accepting Paris’s argument that it encouraged citizens to “live together”.
The law, introduced in 2010, makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place. While it also covers balaclavas and hoods, the ban has been criticised as targeting Muslim women.
The case was brought by an unnamed 24-year-old French citizen of Pakistani origin, who wears both the burqa, covering her entire head and body, and the niqab, leaving only her eyes uncovered.
She was represented by solicitors from Birmingham in the UK, who claimed the outlawing of the full-face veil was contrary to six articles of the European convention. They argued it was “inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory”.
The French government asked the court to throw out the case, claiming that the law was not aimed at the burqa or veil but any covering of the face in a public place, and also applied to hoods and helmets when not worn on a motor vehicle.
The court heard that out of an estimated five million Muslims living in France – the exact figure is unknown as it is illegal to gather data by religion or ethnic group – only about 1,900 women were estimated to be affected by the ban, according to 2009 research. French officials told the judges this figure had since dropped by half “thanks to a major public information campaign”.
The complainant, named only by the initials SAS, was described as a “perfect French citizen with an university education …who speaks of her republic with passion”.
Her lawyer Tony Muman told the ECHR last November: “She’s a patriot” adding that she had suffered “absolutely no pressure” from her family or relatives to cover herself. While she was prepared to uncover her face for identity checks, she insisted on the right to wear the full-face veil, Muman said.
The European judges decided otherwise, declaring that the preservation of a certain idea of “living together” was the “legitimate aim” of the French authorities.
Isabelle Niedlispacher, representing the Belgian government, which introduced a similar ban in 2011 and which was party to the French defence, declared both the burqa and niqab “incompatible” with the rule of law.
Aside from questions of security and equality, she added: “It’s about social communication, the right to interact with someone by looking them in the face and about not disappearing under a piece of clothing.”
The French and Belgian laws were aimed at “helping everyone to integrate”, Niedlispacher added.
The ECHR has already upheld France’s ban on headscarves in educational establishments, and its regulation requiring the removal of scarves, veils and turbans for security checks.
Tuesday’s legal decision came a few days after France’s highest court, the cour de cassation, upheld the firing of a creche worker for “serious misconduct” after she arrived for work wearing a veil. The woman has said she will appeal to the ECHR.