In October 2010, France enacted a law banning the wearing of a full-face veil in any public space. The law is intended to regulate the burqa and niqab, and it imposes a fine and/or mandatory “citizenship training” for anyone found wearing a full-face veil in public. France enacted the law despite the fact that the number of women wearing a full-face veil is exceedingly small. The French government estimates that 1,900 women wear the veil in France and some estimates place the number as low as 400.
On October 11, 2010, France enacted a law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space, save in places of worship. The law came into effect on April 11, 2011, after a six-month period of “education” to explain to women already wearing full-face veils the consequences of their continuing to do so.
The French ban is far-reaching and punitive. In part, it provides that “No one shall, in any public space, wear clothing designed to conceal the face” and defines public space “as composed of the public highway and premises open to the public or used for the provision of a public service.” Any person defying the ban is subject to a fine of €150 and/or required to complete a citizenship course in order to remind the convicted person of “republican values of tolerance and respect for human dignity, and to raise awareness of [her] penal and civil responsibility and duties imposed by life in society.”
In March 2010, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that bans on the full-face veil would not liberate oppressed women but might instead lead to their further alienation from European societies. In his view, “a general ban on such attire would constitute an ill-advised invasion of individual privacy,” raising “serious questions about whether such legislation would be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.”
In June 2010, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly passed a recommendation, “[C]all[ing] on member states not to establish a general ban of full veiling or other religious or special clothing.” In July 2010, Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, stated that bans on the full-face veil “miss[ed] the point of European democracy and human rights” and “feed on irrational, populist fear of difference, fear of the unfamiliar.”
As of March 31, 2012, one year after the ban was implemented, the French Ministry of Interior reported that 299 women had received a fine for wearing the full-face veil, and 354 women had been stopped and asked for visual identification.
S.A.S. is a French Muslim woman who would like to wear the veil in public but would be prosecuted if she did so. She filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the law, alleging violations of the prohibition of degrading treatment (Article 3), the right to respect for her private life (Article 8), the right to freedom of religion (Article 9), freedom of expression (Article 10), freedom of assembly and association (Article 11), and the prohibition against discrimination (Article 14).
The Justice Initiative filed written comments with the European Court of Human Rights addressing the comparative practice of Western European states with respect to regulating the full-face veil, setting out the main considerations for the application of the principle of proportionality, and setting out the findings of the Open Society Foundations report Unveiling the Truth which is the first empirical research into the experiences and motivations of women who wear a full-face veil in France.
The Justice Initiative made the following arguments to the Court.
Comparative Practice. A review of the provenance and status of comparative bans on full-face veils in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, demonstrating that the French law at issue in this case imposes more stringent restrictions than the laws of other countries except Belgium.
Proportionality. A review of the appropriate justifications that may be invoked for controls on wearing clothing, and the evidence upon which any such ban should be based.
Unveiling the Truth. The Open Society Foundations study Unveiling the Truth indicates that Muslim women in France wear the full-face veil as part of their personal search for identity and an expression of their Muslim faith, rather than because of coercion.
October 11, 2011. France passes a law banning the wearing of a full-face veil in public space, Loi no. 2010-1192 du 11 octobre 2010 interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l'espace public.
April 11, 2011. S.A.S. files an application with the European Court of Human Rights.
February 1, 2012. The European Court of Human Rights communicates the case to the Government of France.
July 10, 2012. The Justice Initiative submits written comments to the European Court of Human Rights.
May 30, 2013. The assigned Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights relinquishes jurisdiction to the Grand Chamber (17 judges).
November 27, 2013. European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber oral hearing in Strasbourg, France.