Burkini ban challenged by Grenoble in top French court

·2-min read

By Juliette Jabkhiro

PARIS (Reuters) - The French city of Grenoble took its decision to allow body-covering "burkini" bathing suits for women in public pools to the country's top court on Tuesday after the interior minister said the move was "seriously undermining secularism".

The city's legal fight with the state over its attempt to reverse a decade-old council ban on the full-body swimwear has renewed the nationwide debate on the place of religion in public places.

Body-covering swimwear - which leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed - is largely worn by Muslim women who wish to preserve their modesty in accordance with their beliefs.

There is no nationwide ban in place, but they are prohibited in many public pools across the country.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin's made his remarks on secularism after a lower tribunal upheld his challenge to the city's move in May.

That case was based on a 2021 law about "separatism", with the local court finding the city was gravely infringing the public service principle of neutrality.

In seeking to overturn that ruling, Mayor Eric Piolle told the Conseil d'Etat that the city, run by the Greens, had not created a "burkini permit", but instead was reversing a municipal ban imposed a decade earlier which he considered discriminatory.

"We're not creating a new right, we're going back to pre-2012 rules," Piolle told the hearing.

The mayor said people of all faiths wore full body swimwear for many reasons, including being conscious of their appearance.

Lawyers for the municipality and human rights associations cited the Conseil d'Etat's decision to allow the town of Chalon-sur-Saone to serve alternative school meals to Muslim children who do not eat pork.

They argued it was not against secular laws for a public service to accommodate minority needs, providing services to all citizens were not disrupted.

The interior ministry's legal representative, Pascale Leglise, said a child's right to eat could not be compared with access to a pool.

"(This measure) aims to adapt the public service for religious motives," Leglise told the hearing.

The debate around burkinis has been heated in France since 2016, when a city in the south of France tried to ban them from public beaches. On that occasion, the Conseil d'Etat overturned the ban, saying it infringed on fundamental liberties.

A ruling in the Grenoble case is expected in a few days' time.

(Reporting by Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Richard Lough and Alison Williams)

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