PARIS (AP) – France’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled on Tuesday against allowing body-worn “burkini” swimwear in public pools for religious reasons, arguing that it violates the principle of government neutrality towards religion.
While worn only by a small number of people in France, head-to-ankle burkinin draws intense political debate in the country.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin hailed the cabinet decision as a “victory for secularism.” Some Muslim women condemned it as unfairly targeted at their faith and their bodies and based on outdated misconceptions about Islam.
The city of Grenoble, led by a mayor from the Green Party, voted last month to allow women to wear burkinis in public pools following campaigns from local activists. The city also voted to allow women to swim topless, as part of a broader relaxation of swimwear rules.
The prefect or top government official of the Grenoble region blocked the burkini decision, claiming it was contrary to France’s secular principles.
The Council of State affirmed the prefect’s move on Tuesday, saying in a statement that the Grenoble vote was conducted “to satisfy a religious requirement” and “harms the neutrality of public services.”
The ruling was the first under a controversial law, advocated by President Emmanuel Macron, aimed at protecting “Republican values” against what his government calls the threat of religious extremism.
The rules for clothing in public swimming pools in France are strict, for what the authorities say are hygienic reasons: Caps are required, and baggy swimming trunks or other voluminous clothing are generally prohibited. Wetsuits are also not allowed in many pools, as are some sun protection suits.
A few other cities allow burkinis in public pools. The city of Rennes is among them, but its decision was aimed at loosening the swimwear rules and not based on religious reasons.
The mayor of Grenoble argued that women should be able to wear what they want and express their religious beliefs in pools as well as on the street. Opponents of the burkini – which includes local officials from the far right but also the left – argued that swimwear represents the oppression of women and a potential gateway to Islamic radicalism.
Six years ago, the Council of State imposed a local ban on burkini, 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 will further isolate women who cover their heads and bodies in public.
While some Muslim women are forced by male relatives to cover themselves, she said: “Muslim women are not homogeneous. (French authorities) look at Muslim women through a single prism.” She blamed a leftover colonial era “fixation with Muslim women’s bodies of politicians who want to control them.”
Grenoble’s decision to swim topless is not threatened in the courts.