The French government will challenge a decision by the city council allowing bathers to wear the burkini – a full-body swimsuit – in its swimming pools.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the decision was an “unacceptable provocation” contrary to the values of the secular republic and announced he would seek to block it.
The decision of the Grenoble city council to relax strict swimsuit rules to allow people to dress “however they want” in outdoor municipal swimming pools, including wearing burkinis or swimming topless, reopened the controversial debate on the place of religious symbols and clothing in France just a few weeks before a legislative election.
Critics see the body-covering garment as a symbol of rampant Islamism and an attack on France’s secular tradition while some feminists would like it banned altogether, seeing the garment as a symbol of female oppression.
Until now, it was prohibited in public swimming pools, as well as loose swimming shorts and T-shirts, for reasons of hygiene. Current rules require male bathers to wear tight-fitting bathing suits.
Grenoble’s decision to allow the wearing of the burkini angered opponents. The regional authority announced that it was immediately suspending public funding for the city and an investigation was opened by the public prosecutor into an organization behind the decision.
Laurent Wauquiez, of the center-right Les Républicains party and president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regional authority, said Grenoble had “broken with secularism and the values of our Republic” and had engaged in a form of “separatism “. He had accused the local mayor, the Ecologie-Vert representative Éric Piolle of “doing business with political Islam … to buy votes”.
Piolle faced fierce opposition to the move and won the swimwear vote 29 to 27, with two abstentions after a heated debate that lasted nearly four hours. Piolle said he was delighted to be attacked by Darmanin and said the decision was “feminist”.
“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress as they wish,” Piolle told RMC radio.
Grenoble is not the first to authorize bathers to wear burkinis in municipal swimming pools; in 2019, Rennes in northwestern France relaxed its dress code to allow full-body swimsuits and other types of swimwear.
In 2016, attempts by several mayors to ban the burkini on Mediterranean beaches sparked a national row and was ultimately found to be discriminatory. The French law of 1905 on laicity – which roughly translates to “secularism” – allows the wearing of religious symbols in public places, including swimming pools, as long as they do not impinge on health and safety.
Muslim women footballers in France are currently engaged in a legal battle to overturn French Football Federation rules that prevent them from wearing the hijab. The FFF bans all “ostentatious” religious symbols including the Jewish yarmulke for competitive matches.
On Tuesday, the Grenoble prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the Citizen Alliance, the organization that campaigned for the burkini after allegations that it illegally “collected and retained” personal information about people’s ethnic origins as well as their political and religious beliefs. The collection of such information is strictly prohibited in France.
The local prefect, representing the state, must also challenge in the administrative court the decision to modify the dress rules of the swimming pool, claiming that it contravenes both the law of 1905 and the legislation adopted last August to fight against religious “separatism”.