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French court blocks ‘burkinis’ in council’s pools

A French court stepped into a row over the wearing of burkinis in municipal swimming pools, suspending a council's decision to allow Muslim women to wear them.

French court blocks 'burkinis' in council's pools
People in Grenoble protest on May 16th against authorising the wearing of the "burkini" (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

The administrative court in the Alpine city of Grenoble blocked the rule change by the council there, arguing that it “seriously violated the principle of neutrality in public service”.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin welcomed the court ruling as “excellent news” in a post on Twitter Wednesday evening.

The ruling was the latest development in a long-running dispute that has set defenders of France’s secular values against those arguing that a burkini ban constitutes discrimination.

The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, is a controversial issue in France where critics see it as a symbol of creeping Islamisation.

The governor of the Isere region in southeast France had asked the court to intervene to stop the rule change from coming into effect in June.

The new rule had been championed by Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally.

The rule changes the council had approved would have allowed all types of bathing suits, not just traditional swimming costumes for women and trunks for men. Women would also have been free to bathe topless if they chose to.

Legal battles

The judges delivered their ruling on Wednesday evening after hearing arguments earlier the same day.

In their judgment, they said that the council’s rule change meant some people could invoke religious grounds for not respecting the usual dress code in council pools.

Under a new law to counter “Islamist separatism” passed by parliament last year, the government can challenge decisions it suspects of undermining

France’s strict secular traditions intended to separate religions from the state.

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 forced their way into a pool with burkinis, sparking a political row.

French sports brand Decathlon found itself at the centre of controversy and was in 2019 forced to back down from plans to sell a “sports hijab” enabling Muslim women to cover their hair while running.

The debate about the burkini comes as French Muslim women footballers are battling to overturn a ban on the wearing of religious symbols during competitive matches.

The French Football Federation currently prevents players from playing while wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab or the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

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HEALTH

French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

After the seismic decision of the US Supreme Court on Friday, French MPs are calling for the right to abortion in France to be protected by the constitution.

French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

Lawmakers from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party are to propose a parliamentary bill on Saturday that would enshrine the right to abortion in the constitution. 

The move comes after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” decision on Friday.

“In France we guarantee and advance the rights of women. We protect them,” said Aurore Bergé – the head of Renaissance in the Assemblée nationale and one of the key sponsors of the bill. 

Another co-sponsor, Marie-Pierre Rixain tweeted: “What happens in elsewhere cannot happen in France. We must protect the right to abortion for future generations. 

In 2018 and 2019, Emmanuel Macron’s party – which back then was known as La République en Marche – refused to back bills proposed by left-wing party, La France Insoumise, to enshrine abortion rights into the constitution. 

In a Saturday interview with France Inter, Bergé suggested that the success of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National during parliamentary elections earlier this month had created a sense of newfound urgency. 

She described the far-right MPs as “fierce opponents of women’s access to abortion” and said it was important “to take no risk” in securing it. 

READ MORE France’s Macron condemns US abortion ruling

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has come out in support of the bill. 

The left-wing opposition block, NUPES, also backs it and had planned to propose an identical piece legislation of its own on Monday. 

Macron is seeking parliamentary allies to pass reforms after his formation lost its majority in legislative elections earlier this month.

The legal timeframe to terminate a pregnancy in France was extended from 12 to 14 weeks in the last legislature.

Changing the constitution requires the National Assembly and Senate to adopt the same text, then a three-fifths majority of parliament sitting in congress. The other option is a referendum.

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