Grenoble takes on French state as burkini legal row reaches highest court


The legal row over whether burkinis, or full-body swimsuits, should be allowed in French municipal swimming pools is to go before France’s highest administrative court as the city of Grenoble battles the state.

The city, at the foot of the French Alps, has been a the centre of a bitter political row since its Green mayor, Éric Piolle, who leads a broad left-wing coalition, proposed loosening rules on swimwear in outdoor municipal pools.

The new rules, approved by the municipal council in May, did not name the burkini, but would allow people to wear any kind of swimwear, including letting men or women fully cover their body or allowing women to go topless in the same way as men can.

The state this week took legal action against Grenoble. The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, had opposed allowing the burkini in municipal pools, calling it an “unacceptable provocation” and saying it ran against French values of secularism. On Darmanin’s instruction, the state governor of the Isère region, in south-east France, asked a local court to intervene to suspend the new pool rules from coming into effect on 1 June.

The court decided in favour of the government and suspended the new rules on Wednesday night, arguing they “seriously violated the principle of neutrality in public service”. Darmanin tweeted that the decision was “excellent news”.

But the city of Grenoble has appealed against the ruling, and the case will now to go France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat.

The case is significant because the state’s challenge was lodged under Emmanuel Macron’s new law to counter “Islamist separatism”, which was passed by parliament last year. This law allows the government to challenge decisions which it suspects undermine France’s secular traditions intended to separate religion from the state.

The French 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.

Grenoble’s mayor has argued that wearing 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.

The dispute has prompted a political row before next month’s parliamentary elections. It is not the first time full-body swimwear has caused political controversy before an election season. 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 Conseil d’Etat ruled then 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.

Jordan Bardella, of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, said on Thursday that parliament should create a law against burkinis, which he said had no place in France and were a “political-religious provocation”.