There were tensions in the French government over the controversial burkini ban on some beaches as the country's top court deliberated Thursday whether the ban is discriminatory.
French Education Minister Najat Vallaut-Belkacem argued that forbidding Islamic-inspired swimwear opened a gateway for racial discrimination.
"This clears the way for racist slogans," she said in a radio interview on Thursday, hours before France's top administrative court, the Council of State, was to examine the ban imposed by local councils in some 30 coastal communities.
The court told dpa that it expects to reach its decision by Friday afternoon.
"It raises the question of individual liberties," Vallaut-Belkacem told radio broadcaster Europe 1.
However, Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the ban in an interview with TV channel BFMTV, claiming that the burkini - a swimwear garment designed to cover the arms, legs and head in keeping with Islamic standards of modesty - symbolized the enslavement of women.
French President Francois Hollande made a veiled reference to the ban in comments on the sidelines of a gathering of leading European social democrat politicians in La Celle-Saint-Cloud.
Living together brings with it the requirement "that everyone sticks to the rules and that there is neither provocation nor stigmatization," Hollande said.
On Wednesday, former president and upcoming election hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy called the burkini a "provocation" in comments to channel TF1.
The debate intensified as pictures began circulating online earlier in the week that show a woman surrounded by four policemen removing her long-sleeved top on a beach in Nice.
Nice, which is on high alert following a deadly terrorist attack during Bastille Day celebrations in July, is one of the places in southern France where a burkini ban is now in place.
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Invented in 2004 by an Australian woman, the burkini has come under attack in Germany and France. Banning the full-body swimwear would rob many women of the freedom to have fun in public, says its creator.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano doesn't see the ban on burkinis in some areas of France as a model for his country, according to statements made in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The mayor of the seaside city of Cannes in southern France has banned non-secular bathing attire, including the Islam-influenced burkini, citing security reasons for the decision.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in an interview published Wednesday that he understood the decisions by local mayors to ban Islam-influenced full-body swimming attire at the beach, but added that there would be no national legislation.