The French ban on wearing the Muslim full-face veil – the niqab – has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.
A case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman, who argued that the ban on wearing the veil in public violated her freedom of religion and expression.
French law says nobody can wear in a public space clothing intended to conceal the face. The penalty for doing so can be a 150-euro fine ($205).
The 2010 law came in under former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.
A breach of the ban can also mean a wearer having to undergo citizenship instruction.
France has about five million Muslims – the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe – but it is thought only about 2,000 women wear full veils.
The court ruled that the ban “was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face”. The Strasbourg judges’ decision is final – there is no appeal against it.
A court statement said the ruling also “took into account the state’s submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction”.
“The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question.”
Some face coverings, including motorbike helmets, are exempted from the French ban.
The woman, identified only by the initials SAS, took her case to the European Court in 2011. She said she was under no family pressure to wear the niqab, but chose to do so as a matter of religious freedom, as a devout Muslim.
France was the first European country in modern times to ban public wearing of the full-face veil. Belgium adopted a similar ban in 2011.
In Spain, the city of Barcelona and some other towns have brought in similar bans, as have some towns in Italy.
The French government argues that the ban has wide public support. The authorities see the full-face veil not only as an affront to French secular values but also as a potential security risk, as it conceals a person’s identity.
In the past, the European Court has sided with French secularism – it also ruled in favor of the government’s ban on headscarves in schools.
Exemptions from ban on public face covering:
- Motorcycle helmets
- Face masks for health reasons
- Face covering for sporting or professional activities
- Sunglasses, hats etc which do not completely hide the face
- Masks used in “traditional activities”, such as carnivals or religious processions
Source: Radio France International