PARIS (AP) — France’s highest administrative court on Tuesday ruled to ban body-covering burkinis in public swimming pools on religious grounds, arguing that it violates the principle of state neutrality with regard to religion.
While only a small number of people in France wear the head-to-ankle burkini, it has sparked heated political debate in the country.
Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin called the State Council’s decision “a victory for secularism.” Some Muslim women have denounced this as an unfair attack on their faith and their bodies and based on outdated misconceptions about Islam.
The city of Grenoble, led by a Green party mayor, voted last month to allow women to wear burkinis in public swimming pools after a campaign by local activists. The city also voted to allow women to swim topless as part of a wider relaxation of swimwear rules.
The prefect or senior government official in the Grenoble region blocked the decision on the burkini, arguing that it was contrary to France’s secular principles.
On Tuesday, the Council of State upheld the prefect’s decision, saying in a statement that the vote in Grenoble was held “to satisfy a religious demand” and “is detrimental to the neutrality of public services.”
The decision was the first under a controversial law championed by President Emmanuel Macron to protect “republican values” from what his government calls the threat of religious extremism.
The rules for wearing clothes in public swimming pools in France are strict for reasons that the authorities say are hygienic: caps are mandatory, and baggy swimming trunks or other bulky clothing are generally prohibited. Wetsuits are also banned in many pools, as are some sun suits.
In some other cities, burkinis are allowed to be worn in public pools. Among them is the city of Rennes, but his decision was aimed at relaxing the rules for wearing bathing suits, and not for religious reasons.
The mayor of Grenoble argued that women should be able to wear what they want and express their religious beliefs in the pools as they would on the street. Opponents of the burkini, which includes both far-right and left-wing local officials, have argued that bathing suits represent oppression of women and a potential gateway for Islamic radicalism.
Six years ago, the Council of State lifted a local burkini ban amid shock and anger after some Muslim women were ordered to remove body-concealing clothing on the beaches of the French Riviera.
For Fatima Bent of the Muslim feminist group Lallab, Tuesday’s decision is a “clear step backwards” that further isolates women who cover their heads and bodies in public.
Although male relatives force some Muslim women to cover up, she said: “Muslim women are not homogeneous. (French authorities) look at Muslim women through a single lens.” She blamed the relic of the colonial era on “politicians’ obsession with the bodies of Muslim women who want to control them.”
Grenoble’s decision to swim topless has not been jeopardized in the courts.