France was the first EU state to ban the niqab, the full-face Islamic veil, in public spaces in 2011. The mayor of Grenoble in the south-east said local lifeguards asked for the pools to be shut down because of the “complicated” situation they are being asked to deal with. They are “there to ensure the safety of swimmers and can’t do that when they have to worry about the crowds generated” by the controversial swimsuits, according to a town hall statement.
On Sunday, seven Muslim women clad in burkinis went to swim in the Grenoble pools at the initiative of the Alliance Citoyenne rights group, flouting a municipal ban on the body-covering swimwear.
They demanded the right to bathe in their burkinis, arguing the ban discriminated against Muslims.
The shock ‘Operation burkini’ saw scores of swimmers cheer the group of women, who were later fined £30 each by police after they were called by pool staff.
The lifeguards are the “victims of a campaign of intimidation designed to incite people to break the rules… We are working towards a positive solution to the problem,” the town hall continued.
The women now want the public pools, whose rules require men to wear swim briefs and women to wear bikinis or one-piece swimsuits, to change their regulations to accommodate burkini-wearing Muslims.
The bitter row is the latest in France over face and body-covering Islamic garments, which many see as a symbol of female submission and oppression in a country that adheres to a strict form of secularism.
The European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban in 2014, dismissing arguments banning face-covering garments breached religious freedom.
Gender Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa weighed in on the burkini row on Thursday, denouncing the Muslim women’s plan to “create a new norm,” which would require women to cover up “in the presence of men”.
“There is an inversion of values. There are not millions of women calling for the right to swim in burkinis, that is simply not true,” Mrs Schiappa told Europe 1 radio.
“What we have is a small, active minority promoting a form of political Islam, and whose members are fighting against women’s rights in a bid to create a new social norm, one which states that we must cover our bodies in the presence of men. And I do not agree with that,” she continued.
“What enables us to live together is the respect for common rules. These common rules are the law,” Mrs Schiappa insisted.
She added: “It is the responsibility of local officials to remind people of the values of the Republic and to remind people that one cannot intimidate women who choose to wear bikinis or swimsuits when they bathe at their local pool.”
Asked whether a second ‘Operation burkini’ planned for Sunday should be banned, she said: “Is there a threat to public order? If yes, officials will need to assume their responsibilities. If not, banning the protest will only serve to further victimise the women. And I’m not sure we want to do that.”
The burkini was at the centre of a bitter controversy three years ago after several French seaside towns outlawed the garment, claiming it was a security threat. The bans were later overturned.