A French court will hear an appeal to reverse a decision of the municipal authorities to allow the body-concealing swimsuit in public pools.
A French court is set to hear an appeal this week to reverse a decision of the municipal authorities in Grenoble to effectively allow Muslim women to wear the burkini, the one-piece swimsuit that includes head covering, in public swimming pools.
Grenoble’s city council narrowly approved the measure, which allows swimmers to “dress how they want”, at a meeting last May. It applies to the burkini, but it also allows men to wear long shorts and women to swim topless.
Championed by Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of France’s most well-known Green politicians, the move re-ignited a country-wide debate about religious dress as it was met with a campaign of fierce opposition.
The French Interior Ministry has contested the council’s decision, and asked a local court to reinstate the ban on the basis that it violates French laws on secularism and the “neutrality of public service”.
The burkini ban became a major topic of debate ahead of France’s parliamentary elections, whose first round took place last weekend.
Is the burkini banned in France?
There is no blanket ban in France for wearing the burkini. However, women as well as men are subject to strict swimwear rules in most state-run swimming pools across the country. For hygiene reasons, men are normally required to wear tight-fitting trunks.
In 2016, several local mayors in southern France moved to ban the burkini on French beaches, sparking the first nation-wide debate about the bathing suit. In Nice, four armed police officers were photographed approaching a woman lying on a beach, issuing her a fine for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.”
The French resort had joined at least 15 other towns in imposing a ban on clothing that "overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks". The ban refers specifically to a string of terror attacks that took place in France earlier that year, and was eventually struck down by France’s highest administrative court, following an appeal by a French NGO arguing it was discriminatory.
Among the towns imposing a similar ban was film festival host Cannes. In the Corsican town of Sisco, the burkini ban was presented as necessary to protect residents after Muslim families were attacked on a beach amid brewing tensions over the presence of a large North African community in the island.
Why has it become a symbol of France’s secularism?
The burkini debate has come to embody the country’s approach to religion and secularism. The head of the local Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes regional council, Laurent Wauquiez, threatened to withdraw funding from the city when the new rules came into effect last month.
“I am convinced that what Mr Piolle is defending is a dreadful dead-end for our country,” Wauquiez said, accusing the mayor of “doing deals with political Islam” to “buy votes”.
A 1905 law established the separation of church and state, based on the principle of state neutrality on religious matters and freedom of religion. A 2004 law on secularity (laïcité in French) and religious symbols prohibits citizens from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. Critics say the ban disproportionately targets Muslim women and the hijab.
Last year, France passed a controversial “anti-separatism” bill, which cracks down on hate speech and the funding of religious groups. It is harshly criticised for hampering religious freedom and being anti-Muslim.
Critics argue that France’s struggle with secularism is the result of a wrong interpretation of the 1905 law, which targets the neutrality of the state on religious matters, not of individuals.
What were other major burkini controversies?
In 2019, seven women forced their way into a pool in Grenoble wearing burkinis to protest the ban, sparking debate and leading to a statement by the prime minister insisting existing rules should be followed.
Also in 2019, French sports giant Decathlon came at the centre of a political controversy when it announced plans to market a new “sports hijab” for female runners.
Image: members of the pro-burkini association 'Alliance Citoyenne' watch the Grenoble Municipal Council vote on the ban in May 2022 (Jeff Pachoud, AFP)