The use of masks in public places : a french law analysis

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The use of masks to conceal one's face, to dress up or to interpret roles comes from a long historical tradition and which is found in almost every continent. Artistic activities have often used masks throughout the ages for stage productions, or in popular culture such as in carnivals where masks are used as a collective appropriation. Today, however, it can appear legally risky to wear a mask to conceal one's face, especially since the introduction of french legislation concerning the wearing of burqas in public places. Nevertheless, at a time of mass surveillance with the multiplication of CCTV, the use of masks might be seen as a mean to escape from Big Brother's eye.

Legal regime

The general case

In the French legal system today, it is forbidden to deliberately hide your face in a public space to avoid recognition. This principle applies to demonstrations, but also to any other circumstance within a public space. The French penal code punishes the violation of this rule by a 5th class fine for the wrongdoer. Moreover, the 11th October 2010 law addressing the so-called «problem» of the burqa introduces a very general and restrictive rule.

Art. 1 : No one shall wear clothing intended to conceal the face in the public space.

Wearing a mask that makes the identification of a person impossible is prohibited. On the other hand, this restriction is much more disputable if the mask only covers one part of the face, because there is no intent to entirely conceal the face. Moreover, article 2 of the law acknowledges some cases in which it is lawful to conceal your face. This is the case for cultural or sporting activities, as well as professional obligations or health issues.

Art. 2, II : The prohibition foretold in Art. 1 does not apply if the outfit is prescribed or authorized by legislative or regulatory framework, if it is justified by professional or health reasons, or if it is incorporated within the framework of sports practice and/or artistic / traditional events.

Specific cases

There are some cases in which masks represent characters or brands that are protected by intellectual property. In theory, if you want to use a character or a brand that comes from a creative work or a company, you will have to ask for permission from the copyright owners first. However, there are some law mechanisms you can use to save you from asking permission. In the case of the «droits d’auteur», you can use the «parody exception» and invoke the article L122-5 4° of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle. Regarding brands, you can use the «outside of business use» principle which allows you to use it without needing permission.

The «little sisters» action

Masque prévu pour la réalisation de l'action The little sisters

The « little sisters » is an artistic action by the X/tnt company, conceived to bypass the existing law on masks. Indeed, the « little sisters » masks were conceived at first not to hide the face entirely, but only the eyes, so the law doesn’t apply. It is almost like wearing a pair of sunglasses ! Secondly, article 2 of the 11th October 2010 law allows you to hide your face with a mask as part of an artistic activity. Therefore, we can assume that even if we are wearing a mask that covers the face more than the law intends to allow, it will not constitute an offence.

Therefore, we can assume that even when wearing a mask that covers the face more than intended it will not constitute an offence.

Dedriving advices

Article 2 of the 2011 law is a strong countermeasure to the prohibition on concealing the face. Therefore, it is only necessary to participate in an artistic or sporting activity in order to wear a mask in the public space legally .

Law sources


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