Grenoble has become the second city in France to allow women to wear burkinis in public swimming pools – as well as bathe topless – following a divisive city council vote late Monday on modifying swimwear rules.
The new rules, to take effect on 1 June, were adopted after a tight vote with 29 councillors in favour, 27 against and 2 abstentions.
Hundreds of protesters from opposition groups staged rallies in front of the alpine city’s town hall demanding a referendum on the issue, which they say calls into question the values of the French republic.
The swimsuit, worn by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, is banned in most state-run pools for hygiene reasons – as are beach shorts.
Ahead of the vote, ecologist Mayor Éric Piolle reminded councillors that Grenoble was a "feminist city", denouncing "injunctions on women's bodies" and those who comment in a "threatening way on the physical appearance of women and their way of dressing".
Piolle earlier said he wanted to ensure equal access to public services and to give women the freedom to “dress or undress” while respecting hygiene and safety.
The Mayor reopened debate on the wearing of the burkini last month in an open letter to Emmanuel Macron published in the local Dauphiné Libéré newspaper.
"Our desire is to remove the abnormal clothing bans: this concerns bare breasts as well as full-body swimming costumes worn to protect oneself from the sun or for reasons of conviction,” Piolle said.
“The question is not specifically whether we are for or against the burkini.”
While France’s Council of State authorised burkinis on beaches in 2016 – following attempts by several mayors to ban the swimsuit on Mediterranean beaches – rules in public swimming pools are subject to local regulations.
Until now, Rennes was the only French city to allow burkinis to be worn.
Opposition to Grenoble’s decision is rife, with elected officials from across the Isère department, where the city is located, denouncing the burkini as a sign of “oppression and inferiority for women".
In a statement, Isère authorities said the move to allow burkinis – which “gave in to religiously motivated community demands" – would be challenged in the city’s administrative court under France’s separatism laws.
Meanwhile, the president of the wider Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region warned Grenoble would lose all of its subsidies. “Not one cent … will finance your submission to Islamism," Laurent Wauquiez said.
Thirty-eight regional mayors from across the political spectrum have voiced their opposition to the burkini decision – including former right-wing mayor Alain Carignon, who has urged the people to "demand a referendum".
However Pierre Juston, a lawyer specialising in secular issues, told weekly news magazine Marianne that neither France’s secularism laws dating back to 1905, nor a 2021 law reinforcing respect for the “principles of the republic" could be used to overturn Grenoble’s decision.
"You can be against the burkini from a political and philosophical point of view … but that's an entirely moral standing," Juston said.
“The 1905 law on the separation of church and state, like the 2021 law upholding the principles of the republic, does not come into play.”
While the first law would prevent a pool employee from wearing a burkini, it would not apply to members of the public, he said.
For the 2021 law to apply, opponents would need to prove that Piolle's decision was the work of “dangerous fundamentalist associations”.