The burkini, or full-body swimsuit, is once again at the centre of a political row in France as Grenoble’s town council prepares to debate loosening rules on swimwear at open-air pools.
Rules on swimwear are strict at most French public pools, with men, for example, having to wear tight-fitting racing trunks and not longer board-shorts. Currently, in Grenoble municipal pools, UV-protective tops are banned, except short-sleeved tops for children under 10, or for adults who present a medical note from their doctor.
Éric Piolle, the high-profile Green mayor of Grenoble, which sits at the foot of the French Alps, has tabled a motion for Monday’s town council meeting to discuss his proposal to allow people to dress “how they like” at outdoor pools. The new rules would allow women as well as men to swim topless and all swimmers to wear full-body swimsuits – whether for sun-protection or religious beliefs.
The rightwing head of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, has threatened to pull all regional funding to the city if the rules are loosened.
“Mr Piolle intends to authorise the burkini in municipal pools. I’m warning him: if he does, the region will cut all funding to the city of Grenoble,” Wauquiez tweeted. “Not a centime” of regional money “will finance your submission to Islamism”, he added.
An open letter, signed by Jean-Pierre Barbier, the rightwing head of the département council, and his party’s elected officials, said: “The burkini aims, quite simply, to impose Islamist standards at the heart of swimming and public leisure.”
Other elected officials signed an open letter opposing full-body swimsuits, which they said represented “the oppression and inferiority of women”. Christophe Ferrari, the leftwing former Socialist party head of the Grenoble-Alpes region, opposed the plans and said Piolle was on an “incomprehensible” one-man “crusade”.
The row has been seized on in the run-up to parliamentary elections next month, where the centrist grouping of the newly re-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, is hoping to win a majority but is facing a challenge from an alliance of leftwing parties, led by the radical left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and including Greens and Socialists. On the far right, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party is also aiming to increase its seats.
Le Pen used the burkini row to attack the broad leftwing parliamentary alliance, saying this week that the group included “defenders of burkinis in pools”.
It is not the first time full-body swimwear has caused a political row just before a key election. In the summer of 2016, in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election, about 30 French coastal resorts banned the burkini from beaches, after an initiative by the rightwing mayor of Cannes. The country’s highest administrative court ruled that the anti-burkini decrees were “a serious and manifestly illegal attack on fundamental freedoms”, including the right to move around in public and the freedom of conscience.
In Grenoble, Piolle said the new pool rules were not solely about burkinis and that the burkini was a “non-issue”. He said the row showed that the quality of French public political debate was on a downward spiral. “Stop stigmatising and discriminating against Muslims in our country,” he said in an interview on France 2 TV.
He said the loosening of pool rules was about lifting “discriminatory” restrictions in the name of health and equality. “Stop transforming women into sexual objects by saying what they should wear,” he said.
The row has refocused attention on secularism in France, where the republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. This requires the state to be neutral in terms of religion and allows everyone the freedom to practise their faith as long as there is no threat to public order.
Piolle said burkinis in pools had nothing to do with French secularism. State officials in France are not allowed to wear ostentatious religious symbols at work, to protect state neutrality, but Piolle said users of public services, such as swimmers, were simply members of the public who were free to dress as they pleased. In a video posted on Twitter, Piolle said: “We want a public service that is accessible to everyone.”
The proposed new swimwear rules will be debated at a Grenoble council meeting on 16 May.