By Layli Foroudi
PARIS (Reuters) -France’s highest court on Wednesday upheld a ban on barristers wearing the hijab and other religious symbols in courtrooms in the north, a ruling that is the first of its kind and sets a precedent for the rest of the country.
The conspicuous display of religious symbols is an emotive subject in France and the court’s decision may stir a nationwide debate over so-called core Republican values of secularism and identity ahead of April’s presidential election.
The case was brought by Sarah Asmeta, a 30-year-old hijab-wearing French-Syrian lawyer, who challenged a rule set by the Bar Council of Lille that bans religious markers in its courtrooms on the grounds that it was discriminatory.
In its ruling, the Court of Cassation said the ban was “necessary and appropriate, on the one hand to preserve the independence of the lawyer and, on the other, to guarantee the right to a fair trial.”
Banning the wearing of religious symbols “does not constitute discrimination,” it added.
Asmeta told Reuters she was shocked and disappointed with the ruling.
“Why does covering my hair stop my client from the right to a free trial?” she told Reuters. “My clients are not children. If they choose me as their lawyer, with my veil, then it is their choice.”
There is no law that explicitly says Asmeta cannot wear her hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women, in the courtroom.
In the months after she took an oath and entered law as a trainee barrister, the Lille Bar Council passed its own internal rule banning any signs of political, philosophical and religious conviction to be worn with the gown in court.
Asmeta challenged the Lille Bar Council’s rule, calling it targeted and discriminatory. She lost the case in an appeals court in 2020 and pushed the matter up to the Court of Cassation.
Religious symbols and clothing are banned for public servants in France due to its principle of “laïcité”, or secularism – the separation of religion from the state.
French lawmakers and politicians have in recent years sought to extend curbs on wearing the hijab to cover, for example, mothers who accompany their children on school trips and football players.
As a presidential election in April approaches, right-wing candidates have focused on identity issues.
Asmeta said she was contemplating taking her fight to the European Court of Human Rights.
The case has provoked a heated debate within the legal community.
More than three dozen lawyers from Paris, where the Bar Council has imposed a similar ban, on Monday penned an open letter calling for a nationwide rule against the head covering in courtrooms.
“We, lawyers, do not want a communitarian and obscurantist judiciary,” they wrote in the French publication Marianne.
Slim Ben Achour, a lawyer specialising in discrimination, disagreed and said such bans were hypocritical.
“It is not possible that we, lawyers, the defenders of rights, or at least that is how we sell ourselves, block Muslim women [from practising],” he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Geert de Clercq)