The European Court of Human Rights dealt a blow to France’s Muslim population Tuesday, when it upheld the country’s ban on full-face veils.
The decision was handed down four years after France outlawed almost all clothing covering the face, such as the burqa and niqab, in any public space. In 2010, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy and leaders in both houses of the French Parliament overwhelmingly favored the ban, reasoning that face veils threatened France’s secularism, women’s rights, and public safety.
After the law was implemented in 2011, a Muslim woman known only by her initials, SAS, challenged the decision in front of the European Court, the highest court in the European Union with regards to human rights claims. SAS claimed that the law violated Articles 8–10 and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the “right to respect for private and family life,” “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” “freedom of of expression,” and “prohibition of discrimination.” She also told the Court that she personally chose to wear the burqa and niqab, and was not pressured by her husband or family to do so.
But earlier today, the Court decided that the ban does not explicitly target Muslims, siding with the French government on a ban of any clothing covering the face, with few exceptions. “[The] European Court of Human Rights held, by a majority, that there had been no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and no violation of Article 9 (right to respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion); unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention combined with Articles 8 or 9,” the Court explained in a release accompanying its decision.
Those in violation of the law will have to pay up to €105 or attend a citizenship class.
Over the past decade, France has drawn worldwide criticism for discriminating against minority religious groups, including its 5 million Muslims. In 2012, for example, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found the country in contempt of religious freedom for its crackdown in 2004. That year, Act No. 2004–228 stated that “[in] public primary schools, secondary schools and lycées, the wearing of symbols or clothing by which pupils manifest their religious affiliation in a conspicuous manner is forbidden.” The Act disproportionately affected members of minority religions, opponents argue, including Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims, who traditionally don yarmulkes, turbans, and headscarves — “conspicuous” clothing. Christians, on the other hand, were allowed to wear crosses in public.
The country has also struggled with a rising anti-immigrant sentiment, pushed by far-right political parties. A recent Pew poll showed that 40 percent of France’s right-wing held unfavorable views towards Muslims, compared to 27 percent overall. In one instance gaining international attention, the town of Nice recently banned the display of foreign flags during the World Cup, after soccer fans of Algerian heritage flew the Algerian flag last week.