By Ingrid Melander and Chine Labbé
PARIS (Reuters) - A French court on Friday suspended a ban on women wearing full-body "burkini" swimsuits on a Mediterranean town's beach but the prime minister said the debate was not over, calling the outfit a symbol of a "backwards, deadly Islamism".
The Council of State's ruling against the resort of Villeneuve-Loubet is expected to set a precedent for the dozens of French towns that have also laid down such bans.
It said Villeneuve-Loubet's ban had "seriously infringed, in a manner that was clearly illegal, fundamental liberties such as the freedom to come and go, religious freedom and individual freedom".
The burkinis did not pose any threat to public order, said the council, which is France's highest administrative court.
The ban had been imposed on the grounds that wearing burkinis contravened French laws on secularism.
It followed a series of deadly attacks by Islamist militants in Paris, Nice and elsewhere in the past 20 months that shocked the world but also raised questions about the place of France's large Muslim and Arab population in its society.
Many conservatives and right-wing French supported the burkini ban, with some calling for it to be extended nationwide, while civil liberties campaigners, feminists and Muslims opposed it. The debate was fuelled by footage of police trying to enforce the ban on a woman on the beach in Nice.
Reacting to the court ruling on Friday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a Socialist, said that France needed a modern, secular Islam and wearing a burkini clashed with that idea.
"The Council of State ruling does not close the debate on the burkini," Valls said on Facebook. "Denouncing the burkini is not calling into question individual freedom.. .It is denouncing deadly, backwards Islamism."
The issue has filtered into early campaigning for the presidential election in April 2017, making French cultural identity as well as security a hot issue in political debates.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday launched his comeback bid on a hardline law and order platform.
A LOT OF TENSION
"We need a law," Nice's conservative deputy mayor Christian Estrosi said on Twitter, calling for a bill that would allow burkini bans.
Since conservatives do not have a majority in parliament and such a bill would have no chance of being adopted, Estrosi suggested that Valls come up with a draft law.
But Valls' support for the bans over past weeks has exposed divisions within the government, with several ministers saying they opposed them.
While rulings by the Council of State do set precedents, several mayors said they would not suspend their own bans and rights groups said they would bring them to courts, meaning more lawsuits are expected. The Council of State would still have the final word.
"There's a lot of tension here and I won't withdraw my decree," Sisco mayor Ange-Pierre Vivoni told BFM TV, saying that in his Corsica town the ban would be justified on security grounds.
A spokesman for the ruling Socialist Party and the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur welcomed the court ruling and said he hoped it would calm things down.
But the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, Lionnel Luca, of Sarkozy's Les Republicains party, said it would heighten tensions.
"We need to decide if we want a smiley, friendly version of sharia on our beaches or if we want the rules of the (French) republic to be implemented," he said, referring to the Islamic legal and moral code of sharia.
Hakim, a 42-year-old trader of Algerian origin said that while he welcomed the ruling it did not really reassure him.
"It is because of all these problems that I am thinking of leaving France and returning to Algeria after over 30 years here. It was not like this before, France has changed and it is not easy for us," he said after Friday prayers at Paris' main mosque.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon and Bate Felix, Writing by Ingrid Melander, Editing by Angus MacSwan)