SAS v France: Banned Burqas and Veiled Intents Supported at the Strasbourg Court

In an astonishing recent judgement, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has upheld France’s ban on the wearing of the Burqa and Niqab in public places. Whilst some commentators have heralded the decision as a progressive step in the protection of women from cultural and religious pressures, a closer analysis reveals that beyond the court’s scant and inconsistent reasoning, a worrying precedent has been set which grants states almost unfettered authority to discriminate against disfavoured minorities in the name of social cohesion. This article explores the judgment and examines its implications.

The facts

The applicant was a 24 year old female (Named ‘SAS’ by the court for reasons of anonymity) who was a resident and national of France. SAS declared that she was a devout Muslim who, due to the demands of her faith in addition to her personal convictions and culture, chose to wear both the Burqa and the Niqab in public and private situations. The applicant maintained that she did not always wear these garments and did not object to removing them for certain security and identity checks, however, she wanted to be able to wear them at certain times when she felt the need to be closer to her faith. Such circumstances included for example, during the Islamic month of Ramadan when Muslims are required to fast and typically make an effort to observe their faiths more rigorously. SAS declared that she was under no pressure to wear these garments and asserted that her decision to cover herself was entirely of her own free will as an expression of her Muslim faith.

Adoption of the French Law “Prohibiting the concealment of the face in public places” 

On 11 April 2011, law n° 2010-1192 “prohibiting the concealment of the face in public places” came into force in France. The law has an extremely broad scope and covers not only all places open to the public such as city squares and parks, but also all those where a public service is delivered, such as museums and hospitals. The penalty for contravening this law is a fine of up to 150 euros and/or a compulsory “citizenship course”.

The adoption of the law was the direct a result of a report drafted by a cross-party Parliamentary commission which was established to examine the implications of the wearing of the Veil in France. The report disclaimed the idea that the veil was a traditional expression of the Islamic faith and instead asserted that, at least in France, it was a novel phenomenon which could be linked to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, the report categorized the veil as being a powerful tool in the subjugation of women and as such, inimical to the ideas of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ which lie at the heart of the French constitution. The report also held that the veil precluded contact between individuals and thus constituted both a physical and symbolic barrier between those who chose to wear it and the rest of French society. This it claimed, impinged on the French notion of ‘living together’ which was fundamental to social cohesion and integration.

Claims at the European Court of Human Rights

On the same day the law entered into force, SAS made an application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, alleging that the ban violated a host of her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The essential rights that she claimed had been infringed were Article 8 ECHR regarding the right to respect for private and family life and Article 9 ECHR which protects an individual’s right to freedom of thought conscience and religion. The applicant claimed that whilst the ban was ‘prescribed by law’ for the purposes of the Convention, it didn’t pursue any identifiable ‘legitimate aim’ under the articles and neither was it ‘necessary in a democratic society’.

On the 28 May 2013 the 7 Judge Chamber that was scheduled to hear the case relinquished jurisdiction to the 17 judge Grand Chamber of the Court who proceeded to examine the parties’ arguments.

Decision of the Grand Chamber

By a majority of 15 votes to 2 the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR held that the banning of the Veil did not violate the applicant’s rights under Article 8 and 9 of the convention, nor any other of her Convention rights for that matter.

Prescribed by Law

This requirement was not contested either by SAS or by the State. It was clear that the measure was ‘prescribed by law’ from the text of law n° 2010-1192 and its coming into force on 11 April 2011.

Legitimate Aim

The Court noted that whilst the ban did not pursue any specific legitimate aim outlined in Article 8(2) or 9(2) of the ECHR, it nevertheless accepted the Government’s contention that it infringed upon the State’s notion of ‘living together’, which it claimed could be linked to the aim of ‘ protecting the rights and freedoms of others’. It is worth re-visiting here, the verbatim words of the Court in its justification of this novel legitimate aim:

 “The Court takes into account the respondent State’s point that the face plays an important role in social interaction. It can understand the view that individuals who are present in places open to all may not wish to see practices or attitudes developing there which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, forms an indispensable element of community life within the society in question. The Court is therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face is perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which makes living together easier.”

Finding that ‘living together’ was therefore a legitimate basis upon which States could limit the fundamental rights of their citizens, the Court then proceeded to an examination of whether or not the measure was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ or in other words, whether the ban was proportionate to the aim pursued and the least restrictive means of achieving it.

Necessary in a Democratic Society

In finding that the ban was legitimate to the aim pursued the Court first determined that in matters concerning the State and religion, the State, having democratic authority and a clearer idea of the needs and conditions within a particular society,  should have a wide ‘margin of appreciation’. In other words, in matters concerning religion the Court determined that States would have a large degree of discretion in determining what restrictions may be deemed ‘necessary’ for the purposes of the ECHR. The Court supported this idea by pointing to what it considered to be a lack of consensus amongst European nations regarding whether or not the veil should be banned.

Further, the Court considered as significant the fact that the ban had not been levelled against the wearing of the veil per se but rather against the “concealment of the face” (la dissimulation du visage) in public places. The Court claimed that this distinguished it from previous cases where the specific banning of religious garments in public was held to be a violation of the ECHR.

The court next considered the gravity of the punishment for wearing the veil in public. Whilst the court conceded that ‘the idea of being prosecuted for concealing one’s face in a public place is traumatising for women who have chosen to wear the full-face veil for reasons related to their beliefs’ it nevertheless reasoned that the sanctions were ‘among the lightest that could be envisaged’ by the French legislature and thus by implication were the least restrictive means available and proportionate.

The Court then, quite paradoxically, reasoned that whilst through a restriction on the wearing of the veil in public places France had ‘restricted the reach of pluralism’ which it had previously claimed was a ‘hallmark of a democratic society’; in banning these garments, the French Government was trying to ‘protect a principle of interaction’ which was necessary to preserve pluralism and a spirit of tolerance and broadmindedness within society.

With these reasons taken together, the court ruled that there had thus been no violation of the Convention as the ban was prescribed by law, pursued a legitimate aim and was necessary in a democratic society.

Remarks and Criticisms

Several troubling inconsistencies emerge from the Court’s decision to uphold France’s veil ban. Firstly, the Court’s justification for allowing States a wide margin of appreciation in this area deserves some criticism. Whilst the Court recognized that amongst the Council of Europe members, only Belgium had taken the active step of banning the Burqa in public places, it nevertheless reasoned that because a ban was ‘being discussed’ in several other European States, there was thus no clear consensus against the banning of a veil – which widened the discretion afforded to France. The truth is that whilst there had indeed been debates on the issue within several European States,  no other nation had taken the radical step of legislating an outright ban on the wearing of veil in public except Belgium, which passed its ban against a backdrop of international criticism and rebuke . This evidence clearly points to a European consensus against the banning of the veil – it does not suggest that there is no consensus whatsoever and the Court’s argument simply inverts the truth in order to reach its preferred conclusion.

Secondly, the Court’s suggestion that because the law itself did not explicitly ban the veil that it is therefore proportionate, ignores entirely the pretext in which the law was passed. Both the Parliamentary debates and report which led to the adoption of the law centred almost exclusively on the veil (‘la voile integrale’) and the French legislature seem only to have adopted a ban on the covering of the face on the advice of the Conseil d’Etat that a specific prohibition on the veil would fall foul of the Constitution and ECHR. It seems to be immaterial therefore, that ostensibly the law purports to ban only the ‘concealment of the face’, as it is manifest from material which the Court had before it and even presented as part of its judgement, that its real intent was to ban the veil.

The Courts suggestion that the criminal sanctions for wearing the veil are ‘the lightest possible’ borders on the risible. Criminal sanctions, are by their very nature, serious penalties which may lead to both prosecution before a Court and a criminal record. In this case, a simple caution or even civil penalties may have been used to achieve the aim sought and it is a fallacy for the Court to suggest that because the sanctions in question are not the most grave criminal penalties imaginable they are the least restrictive means of achieving the aim persued. It should also be noted that 150 euros, whilst perhaps a ‘light’ sanction to the moneyed middle – classes of the French legislature and the Court, could impose a substantial financial burden on the mostly working class demographic of women who choose to wear the veil in France. This burden could be amplified as women who truly feel they have no choice but to wear the veil and thus find themselves to be ‘repeat offenders’, face the daunting prospect of being fined each time they leave their homes and this sum thus multiplying into thousands of Euros over time.

The alternative imposition of a ‘citizenship class’ for wearing the veil is also a severe and unnecessary sanction. This vindictive punishment forces women, who may very well be French-born or like SAS – naturalized French nationals, to accept that as long as they uphold their religious and cultural traditions, they will never be regarded as French. They will as a result be made to endure the humiliating and grossly patronizing punishment of being ‘educated’ by the State as to what being French is, simply for retaining this aspect of their religion and culture. It is clear that such an odious punishment cannot credibly be classed as ‘light’.

The Court’s following remarks on pluralism are simply contradictory. It cannot at once concede that France has ‘restricted pluralism’ by banning the veil in public and then accept its justification that it is actually trying to preserve pluralism by doing so. The concept of pluralism does not admit degrees and neither does it metamorphose depending on whose perspective we consider it from. Either a State permits the free expression of different cultures, customs and religions within its borders or it does not – it cannot say that it supports pluralism, but only its version of pluralism which in France’s case, explicitly excludes the Burqa. It is bewildering that the Court would advance such paradoxical logic.

Finally and perhaps most worryingly, is the Court’s endorsement and subsequent creation of the novel legitimate aim of ‘living together’. Whilst the Court concedes that the list of legitimate aims under Articles 8(2) and 9(2) ECHR are ‘exhaustive and interpreted restrictively’ it nevertheless creates, ex nihilo, an entirely novel legitimate aim for States. From now on, States do not have to show how a restriction on the freedom of religion is necessary in order to protect such serious concerns as ‘public health’ or ‘national security’, but only that it offends against their subjective notion of ‘living together’. This remarkably broad and nebulous concept gifts governments who may be motivated by a sole desire to discriminate against particular minorities with an innovative tool in order to do so. It is not hard to imagine how many other religious and cultural practices may be rendered illicit in the future under the smokescreen of ‘living together’. Perhaps some States may decide that Sikhs wearing turbans or Jews wearing kippahs offends against their idea of ‘living together’ and decide to introduce prohibitions on these practices. As a result of the Court’s new legitimate aim, they now need only show that such bans are proportionate in order to comply with the ECHR. History is laden with examples of State sponsored discrimination; The persecution and prejudice experienced by religious and racial minorities during WWII and the desire that such terror should never be wrought again was one of the main driving forces behind the creation of the ECHR and the ECtHR. It is bitterly ironic that the same Court that was setup as a bulwark against such State sponsored incursions into our individual rights and freedoms would now be the organ that seeks to legitimize them.

Conclusion

Granting States the final say on what ‘living together’ means and allowing them to use their definitions to restrict their citizens’ rights is a catastrophic development in the jurisprudence of the Court. The effect of this decision is to ignore the advances of multiculturalism within Europe and to hark back to an era where States consisted of one homogenous group of people with all others considered as foreigners or outsiders. As it is clear that this is no longer the case in the majority of European countries, the effect of the Court’s judgement is to endorse discrimination against those who don’t look, dress and act like the majority and such a decision rubber stamps the xenophobia and prejudice which have been on the worrying rise in Europe.

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