France's latest battle to ensure the principles of secularism are being upheld is taking place on the football pitches of the Riviera city of Nice.
In a city where the right wing mayor Christian Estrosi is fighting to prevent a new mosque from opening, authorities are also trying to ensure that Muslims do not bring their religious beliefs anywhere near the municipal football pitches.
They have taken teams to task for beaching a new "secularism charter" that players and clubs are required to adhere to.
Ten breaches of the charter have been reported since last October, according to a report in BFM TV. Most of the incidents consisted of Muslim players praying either on or close to the field, before or during a match.
For example, on March 19th, some footballers asked to go into a referee’s dressing room to pray, whereas previous incidents included pausing from a team workout to pray.
“We noticed that people were praying in the changing rooms, on the football fields, and sometimes, other inappropriate behavior such as players who refused to shake hands with the female delegates of the football federation," Eric Borghini (see photo) President of the French Football Federation in the Côte d'Azur region told The Local.
(Eric Borghini. Photo: BFM TV Screengrab.)
“So that forced us to react because it doesn’t conform to the French republican spirit of secularism," Borghini said. "When something is forbidden, we don’t do it. When you have a red light, you stop at the red light. It’s the law.
"We consider that sports in general and football in particular, the most popular and universal sport, should not be mixed with religious or political practices.
"On the contrary, it should be a moment of brotherhood, a moment where we should forget all the issues that divide people," said Borghini.
"I don’t want to prevent people from practicing the religion they want, but in an appropriate setting, in temples and mosques and churches, and not on a football pitch or in the changing rooms."
"They’re not hurting human beings, but they are hurting the principles of the French Republic," he added.
Borghini told The Local the issue of players praying on the pitch or in changing rooms has only arisen in recent years.
(A list of incidents when the secularism charter has been breached. Photo: BFM TV)
Nice's secularism charter calls for “respect for the values of the Republic” and consists of four rules which clubs must abide by, not just regarding religion.
The principle of neutrality of buildings is one rule, while the other three are: gender equality, freedom of conscience and worship and the equality of all before the law, regardless of beliefs.
Nice mayor Estrosi warns that if players are found to be breaking any of these rules, their club may be hit by sanctions in the form of a reduction or even complete cancellation of subsidies.
One club has already been reprimanded for failure to comply with the charter; players received a two-match suspension for praying on the pitch.
Football chiefs admit that other players don't mind the praying because "they are all friends".
One player told BFM TV: "It doesn't shock me if someone prays at half-time. if they are in their own place and not disturbing anyone, then it doesn't bother me."
Many will wonder whether the charter was really necessary and will see it as the mayor's latest attempt to stigmatize Muslims.
(Mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi. AFP)
Estrosi has a history of "sticking his nose in the affairs of the Muslim faith", whether it's his battle to prevent the city's new mosque from opening or banning the waving of foreign flags, namely Algerian, during the last World Cup.
France has a long-established secular tradition that has its roots in the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution and a 1905 law enforcing a strict separation between church and state.
But in recent years French politicians, both on the left and the right, have in the past been accused of using the country's principle of laicité as a cover for trying to limit the influence of the Muslim faith. It is often referred to by the term "militant secularism".
Mayors have refused to offer alternative school meals when pork is on the menu, while even the country's famed veil laws introduced in 2004 and 2010 on the grounds of secularism and then security were deemed by many Muslims to be an attack on their faith.
Muslim mothers were also barred from accompanying their children on school trips if they wore the headscarf.
Last year the country's Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem warned against the rise of militant secularism
"In recent years, we have reached levels of unwarranted tension, which go a long way in explaining the misunderstanding surrounding the notion of secularity, and the reason why some young people don't associate with it," Vallaud-Belkacem said.
But football chiefs on the Côte d'Azur say the current political climate means it's more important than ever to reinforce the values of the French Republic.
"Radicalization isn’t something that often happens on a football field, but there’s a true risk that these lapses could encourage radicalization," said Borghini.
by Katie Warren/Catherine Edwards/Ben McPartland