Grenoble approves wearing of burkini in public swimming pools

The French city of Grenoble has authorised the wearing of the burkini in state-run swimming pools, reigniting one of France’s most contentious debates on religious dress.

The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, has become a controversial talking point during the holiday season in recent years.

It is prohibited in most state-run pools, where strict swimwear rules apply to all, including men, who are required to wear tight-fitting trunks.

The move applies across the board, meaning that men will able to wear long shorts and women can also bathe topless in the Alpine city’s pools.

Grenoble’s mayor, Éric Piolle, one of the country’s highest-profile Green politicians, who leads a broad leftwing coalition at the city council, championed the move, but ran into a fierce campaign of opposition.

He managed to rally enough votes at a city council meeting to approve the measure, despite not having the support of his own EELV party, which distanced itself from the measure. It was carried by the slimmest of margins with 29 votes for, 27 against and 2 abstentions after two and a half hours of tense debates.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC on Monday.

Opponents see it differently, including the influential conservative head of the wider Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Laurent Wauquiez, who has promised to withdraw funding from the city. “I am convinced that what M Piolle is defending is a dreadful dead end for our country,” Wauquiez said at the beginning of May, accusing him of “doing deals with political Islam” to “buy votes”.

At the council meeting, the former rightwing mayor Alain Carignon urged a local referendum on the issue. “You can’t force through such a sensitive subject. You have no legitimacy, you weren’t elected for that,” he said.

The regional spat has put the burkini back in the headlines nationally, animating French talkshows and the political class ahead of parliamentary elections next month.

The issue of how people dress for the pool touches on highly sensitive topics in France, including fears about the influence of Islam and threats to the country’s cherished secularism.

“It seems to me that [Piolle] doesn’t realise the harm he is doing to our Republican values,” Prisca Thevenot, a spokeswoman for President Emmanuel Macron’s party, told Radio J on Monday.

“This would be breaking with the rules to respond to political desires based on religion,” she added.

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. The rules, introduced after a string of terror attacks in France, were eventually struck down as discriminatory.

Three years later, a group of women in Grenoble caused a splash by forcing their way into a pool with burkinis, leading the prime minister at the time to insist that the rules should be followed.

French sports brand Decathlon also found itself at the centre of a similar row in 2019 when it announced plans to sell a “sports hijab” enabling Muslim women to cover their hair while running.

Grenoble is not be the first to change its rules, however.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear.

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