French court overturns council move to allow burkinis in city pools

Invoking country’s ‘Islamist separatism’ law, judges strike down local law enabling women to wear full-body swimwear

A woman wearing a burkini at the beach in Marseille, southern France. (AP Photo)
A woman wearing a burkini at the beach in Marseille, southern France. (AP Photo)

GRENOBLE, France — A French court stepped into a row over the wearing of burkinis in municipal swimming pools, suspending a council’s decision to allow Muslim women to wear them. The administrative court in the Alpine city of Grenoble blocked the rule change by the council there, arguing that it “seriously violated the principle of neutrality in public service.”

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin welcomed the court ruling as “excellent news” in a post on Twitter Wednesday evening. The ruling was the latest development in a long-running dispute that has set defenders of France’s secular values against those arguing that a burkini ban constitutes discrimination.

The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, is controversial in France, where critics see it as a symbol of creeping Islamization.

The governor of the Isere region in southeast France had asked the court to intervene to stop the rule change from coming into effect in June. The new rule had been championed by Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest-profile Green politicians, who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally.

The rule changes the council had approved would have allowed all types of swimwear, not just traditional bathing suits for women and trunks for men. Women would also have been free to bathe topless if they chose to.

The judges delivered their ruling on Wednesday evening after hearing arguments earlier the same day. In their judgment, they said that the council’s rule change meant some people could invoke religious grounds for not respecting the usual dress code in council pools.

A Tunisian woman wearing a burkini, August 16, 2016. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

Under a new law to counter “Islamist separatism” passed by parliament last year, the government can challenge decisions it suspects of undermining France’s strict secular traditions intended to separate religions from the state.

Attempts by several local mayors in the south of France to ban the burkini on Mediterranean beaches in the summer of 2016 kicked off the first firestorm around the bathing suit. Those restrictions were eventually overturned for being discriminatory.

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