Positioning himself as a defender of French values and tough on immigration, the conservative said last week that he would impose a nationwide ban on the swimwear that has divided the Socialist-led government and dominated political debate through much of August.
France’s highest administrative court suspended on Friday a ban on burkinis that had spread to a dozen French coastal cities on the grounds they violated fundamental liberties.
The bans have exposed secular France’s difficulties grappling with religious tolerance after Islamist militant attacks in a Normandy church and the Riviera city of Nice in July.
Images of armed police apparently enforcing the ban on a woman on a beach in Nice have added to the controversy.
The bans had been justified on public order grounds, and Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls appeared to defend officials who imposed them.
After the court set the bans aside, however, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said a law against the garments would be ruled unconstitutional.
Asked about that risk, Sarkozy said: “Well, then we change the constitution. We’ve changed it 30 odd times, it’s not a problem.”
Sarkozy is struggling to catch up in the polls with rival Alain Juppe, a mild-mannered, more centrist former prime minister before their Republican party’s primary elections in late November.
Cazeneuve, who was meeting with French Muslim leaders yesterday to ease religious tensions, said he would name veteran politician Jean-Pierre Chevenement to head an independent body charged with handling relations between the state and the religion’s representatives.
While Sarkozy has called for a law allowing mayors to ban the burkini, Cazeneuve told La Croix newspaper that such a law was unlikely under the current socialist government.
“The government... refuses to legislate on this because a law would be unconstitutional, ineffective and likely to create antagonism and irreparable tensions,” he said. “We do not need a new law. Current laws clearly lay out France’s secularism.”
The controversy has filtered into early campaigning for the presidential election in April 2017, making French cultural identity and security highly-charged issues in the political debates.
“France needs healing and people coming together, not divisive outbursts by those contesting in primaries,” Cazeneuve said.