French Republican Values “Threatened by the Burkini”: Is The June 21 Ruling A Turning Point?

France’s Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, ruled on June 21 against allowing swimmers to wear “burkini” swimwear – a swimsuit used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair – in Grenoble’s public swimming pools. The top court argued that allowing the burkini would violate France’s principle of neutrality on matters of religion [1] – France’s principle of laïcité calls for religious affiliation to remain a private affair – as well as contravene “hygiene and security rules” [2]. The same court, however, had ruled against local burkini bans in the country in 2016 [3].

The dispute went all the way to the Council of State after the French city of Grenoble, in the country’s southeast, authorized the burkini in public swimming pools on May 16 – the measure was approved by Grenoble’s city council with a slim margin (29 votes in favor, 27 against and 2 abstentions) after two hours of tense debates. Grenoble’s move followed a campaign by local activists when in 2019 a group of women forced their way into a swimming pool with burkinis [4]. The city’s new policy was not limited to burkinis, however: it was part of a broader relaxation of swimwear rules, which also allowed women to swim topless and men to wear Bermuda shorts in public swimming pools. Clothing rules in France’s public pools are usually strict – caps are required, and voluminous clothing is generally banned – which, according to authorities, is due to hygienic reasons [5]. Following the vote, Grenoble’s mayor and Green politician, Eric Piolle, championed the move, telling broadcaster RMC: “All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want” [6].

The initiative, however, reignited the contentious debate on religious dress code a few weeks before the legislative election. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen condemned in a tweet the burkini as “clothing of Islamist propaganda”  [7], and stated that her party intended to present bill to the National Assembly to ban it in France [8].

On May 25, only a few weeks after the city allowed burkinis in public swimming pools, the local administrative court in Grenoble blocked this authorization on the ground that it undermined the principles of secularism and neutrality of public services [9]. In its June verdict, France’s Council of State has upheld this ban, arguing in a statement that Grenoble’s initial authorization of the burkini was intended “to satisfy a religious demand” and that such decision compromised the principle of neutrality and the equal treatment of users [10]. Grenoble’s decision about swimming topless has not been ruled against in the courts.

Controversy around the burkini

The burkini has been a controversial and highly sensitive issue for several years, although it is worn by only a small number of people in the country. Its critics – across the spectrum, including right wingers and leftists as well as some feminists – see it as a symbol of Islamism, and thus a threat to the country’s state secularism or laïcité, and of oppression of women, arguing that allowing it puts pressure on Muslim women to wear it. Therefore, they call to ban it. Some of those in favor of allowing it, however, say that women should have the choice to keep their bodies covered if they want to and that this does not imply religious extremism [11].

Following Grenoble city council’s decision in May, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin described it as an “unacceptable provocation” and contrary to French secular values [12]. Similarly, Prisca Thevenot, spokeswoman for President Emmanuel Macron’s party (Renaissance, formerly LREM party), told Radio J: “It seems to me that [mayor Eric Piolle] doesn’t realize the harm he is doing to our Republican values” [13]. “This would be breaking with the rules to respond to political desires based on religion,” she added.

Some also raised the issue that the city council did not have the legitimacy to allow “burkini” in public swimming pools. As a matter of fact, during the city council’s meeting in May, the city’s former right-wing mayor, Alain Carignon, urged a local referendum on the issue because in his view “you can’t force through such a sensitive subject”. “You [mayor Piolle] have no legitimacy, you weren’t elected for that,” he added [14].

Following the Council of State’s verdict upholding the banning of the municipal policy, Gérald Darmanin claimed in a tweet that it was “a victory for the law of separatism, for secularism and beyond, for the whole Republic” [15]. Some Muslim women, however, condemned it as unfairly targeting their faith and their bodies, based on misconceptions about Islam [16].

Past attempts: from beaches to public swimming pools

The burkini is prohibited in most of France’s state-run swimming pools, allegedly for hygiene and not religious reasons, as strict swimwear rules apply to all. Nevertheless, a few cities and towns in France have attempted to loosen these restrictions. Besides Grenoble’s recent attempt, the northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis as well as other types of swimwear [17].

The wearing of burkini on beaches has also been highly contested in recent years. In the summer of 2016, local authorities in over 30 towns on the French Riviera imposed burkini bans. They cited concerns about religious clothing in the wake of terrorist attacks in the country: Nice had suffered a truck attack that July that left 86 people dead, and a priest was killed in the north of the country – both attacks had been perpetrated in the name of ISIS. Manuel Valls, the then Prime Minister, supported the mayors who  banned the burkini, which he said was “not compatible with the values of France” and that it was “founded on the subjugation of women” [18].

Those bans were challenged by France’s Human Rights League and an anti-Islamophobia group [19], and sparked protest and criticism around the world. International mass media as well as social media protested against French police stopping women for wearing headscarves and long-sleeved clothing on the beach – one woman who was resting in the beach in Nice was told to remove her clothing [20], while several women were fined in Cannes. Those events influenced the 2017 French presidential election’s campaign, as the burkini was one of the first issues raised during the first electoral debate between Macron and Le Pen [21].

In August 2016, the UN called on France to lift the burkini bans. The spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, stated that such prohibitions are “a grave and illegal breach of fundamental freedoms” and a “stupid reaction” to extremist attacks [22]. “These decrees do not improve the security situation but rather fuel religious intolerance and the stigmatization of Muslims in France, especially women”, he said, and added: “Dress codes such as the anti-burkini decrees disproportionately affect women and girls, undermining their autonomy by denying them the ability to make independent decisions about how to dress, and clearly discriminate against them”. Colville also stated that the manner in which the anti-burkini decrees were implemented was “humiliating and degrading” [23].

That same month, the French Council of State decided to lift the burkini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet – one of the first ones to implement that ban –, ruling that mayors do not have the right to ban burkinis [See previous article on Euro-Islam]. That ruling did set a legal precedent [24], and other courts – such as the Nice’s administrative court – followed suit and suspended other local burkini bans, stating that there were insufficient grounds to justify it [25].

With the recent ruling by the Council of State, however, the tables seem to be turning.


By Ada Mullol

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