PARIS – France’s highest administrative court on Tuesday ruled against allowing full-body “burkini” swimwear in public swimming pools for religious reasons, arguing that it violates the government’s principle of neutrality towards religion .
Although only a small number of people in France wear this top to ankle burkini, it sparks an intense political debate in the country.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin praised the State Council’s ruling as a “victory for secularism”. Some Muslim women called it an unfair attack on their faith and their bodies, based on outdated misconceptions about Islam.
The city of Grenoble, led by a Greens mayor, voted last month to allow women to wear burkinis in public swimming pools after campaigning by local activists. The city has also voted to allow women to swim topless, as part of a wider relaxation of swimwear rules.
The prefect, or top government official, for the Grenoble region blocked the burkini decision, arguing that it violated France’s secular principles.
The Council of State confirmed the prefect’s decision on Tuesday, saying in a statement that the vote in Grenoble was done “to comply with a religious requirement” and “damages the neutrality of public services”.
The ruling was the first under a controversial law championed by President Emmanuel Macron that aimed to protect “Republican values” from what his government calls the threat of religious extremism.
The dress code in public swimming pools in France is strict, because the authorities say it’s for hygiene reasons: caps are mandatory and wide swimming trunks or other bulky clothing is generally prohibited. Wetsuits are also not allowed in many pools, as are some sun protection suits.
A few other towns and villages allow burkinis in public swimming pools. The city of Rennes is one of them, but the decision was aimed at relaxing swimwear rules rather than religious reasons.
The mayor of Grenoble said women should be able to wear whatever they want and express their religious beliefs in swimming pools such as on the street. Opponents of the burkini — including local officials from the far right as well as the left — argued that the swimwear represents women’s oppression and a possible gateway to Islamic radicalism.
Six years ago, the Council of State lifted a local burkini ban amid terror and anger after some Muslim women were ordered to remove body-covering clothing from beaches on the French Riviera.
For Fatima Bent of the Muslim feminist group Lallab, Tuesday’s ruling is “a clear step back” that will further isolate women who cover their heads and bodies in public.
Although some Muslim women are forced to cover themselves by male relatives, she said: “Muslim women are not homogeneous. (French authorities) look at Muslim women through a single prism.” She blamed a leftover colonial era “fixation on the bodies of Muslim women by politicians who want to control them”.
Grenoble’s decision on swimming topless has not been threatened by the courts.