In the latest move as part of a controversial decade-long effort to curb the public expression of religion, the French Senate voted 160-143 Tuesday in favor of a bill seeking to amend its national Sports Code to ban athletes from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs and burkinis, at sports competitions, public swimming pools, and bathing areas.
The bill was proposed on December 8, 2021, by over 80 Senators belonging to the center-right opposition party Les Républicains. It prohibits the wear of “conspicuous religious symbols” by participants in sports events organized by “federations and affiliated associations” and states that rules for the use of public swimming pools or artificial bathing areas must respect the neutrality and secularism of public services.
The bill’s statement of reasons refers to a conflict between the “peaceful and neutral” practice of sport on the one hand and the abuse of the secular principles of the French Republic and “Islamic radicalization” on the other. It states freedom of exercise of religion must be accompanied by neutrality, meaning no individual differences or affiliations are put forward by athletes. A 2021 law to strengthen oversight of sports clubs to prevent radicalization has not been implemented, it states, causing “incidents” of non-neutrality in sport.
One incident the statement mentions is the 2019 protest against the fine imposed by Grenoble city for wearing burkinis at a public pool. The bill describes this protest, a peaceful demonstration where Muslim women wore burkinis in defiance, as a “provocative militant action” defending an unrecognizable vision of women.” It continues by saying that while local governments like Grenoble can legislate on health and safety matters, including banning religious signs that “pose a safety risk,” they look to the Senate to take a stand with respect to secularism.
Notably, in 2012, the French Football Federation banned the wear of veils in official matches or competitions it organized one day after a similar International Association Football Federation (FIFA) ban was overturned.
The bill is not yet final: a committee comprising members from both houses of parliament will now attempt to find a compromise on its text. While the bill’s statement of reasons cites Article 50 of the Olympic Charter, which seeks to prohibit “political, religious or racial demonstration or propaganda” at Olympic venues, it is unclear whether the changes brought by it will apply to the 2024 Paris Olympics.