French town votes to allow ‘burkini’ in swimming pools, reigniting perennial debate

Local officials in the French city of Grenoble cleared the way for women to wear ‘burkinis’ in state-run swimming pools Monday, firing up a perpetual debate over the swimsuit perceived by some as an affront to France’s secularist traditions.

Grenoble’s city council, where the Greens currently hold a majority, voted to scrap several bathing dress codes, local TV channel France 3 reported.

The burkini — an all-in-one swimsuit mainly worn by Muslim women — has consistently raised controversy among many right wingers and some feminists who argue it is a symbol of Islam’s unequal treatment of women and is at odds with the French laïcité (state secularism).

The swimsuit first whipped up a storm when several local French mayors tried to ban burkinis on beaches in 2016, before the proposals were struck down as discriminatory. Then, last summer, five women were fined in Grenoble for entering a state-run swimming pool in burkinis.

French law constitutionally protects citizens’ right to freely practice their religion, but forbids schoolchildren and state employees from displaying religious symbols. Full-face coverings were also banned in 2010.

The debate on burkinis has polarised the city in recent weeks.

Activists from the local campaign group Citizens’ Alliance rejoiced that the vote was taking place. “Our fight has finally paid off,” the group wrote in a statement on Facebook before the vote, adding it was “already a success” that local lawmakers were considering the issue seriously.

But some opposition lawmakers are not happy. “[Green Mayor] Eric Piolle has no legitimacy … to break with the city’s values [and] promote Islamism with a fraction of the local majority,” Matthieu Chamussy of the rightwing Les Républicains wrote on Twitter the day before the vote.

Grenoble is the second city in France to allow burkinis in state-run swimming pools after lawmakers approved the changes in Rennes, northeastern France, in 2018.