There's a legal battle over burkinis in France The city of Grenoble's move to allow the full body-covering swimsuit for Islamic women has sparked a legal battle. Activists say it's a matter of civil — and women's — rights.

A French city approved burkinis in its pools. Then the backlash came

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In France, one town has decided to allow the burkini, a full-body-covering bathing suit, in the municipal swimming pools, and that has set off a national firestorm. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports this traditionally Catholic but staunchly secular country is grappling with the growth and increasing visibility of Islam.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle was the first environmentalist to lead a major French city, and this year his alpine town has been named a European green capital. But no one's talking about that. Rather, Piolle is being assailed for allowing the burkini in his town's public pools.

ERIC PIOLLE: It touched some very intense emotions for people. I understand they can struggle with first religious expression in public space.

BEARDSLEY: The visible religion used to be Catholicism, he says. Now it's Islam. But Piolle says people are confusing things. Religious symbols are banned in public schools and government offices to assure neutrality, but in public places, people can wear what they want, he says. In mid-May, the Grenoble City Council voted to allow the burkini in its pools. The backlash was immediate. In a TV interview, far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the full-body-covering swimsuit a threat to French secularism and beyond.

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "It's a sign of separatism and of the submission of women," said Le Pen, "the opposite of our values in our Constitution. This is how Islamist fundamentalists take over, with little victories involving food or clothing that may seem innocuous but are grave."

It isn't just the far right. President Emmanuel Macron's hardline interior minister called the Grenoble ruling a provocation and immediately filed an injunction to block it in court. The mayor has appealed. Elies Ben Azib, who happens to be Muslim, runs Alliance Citoyenne, a citizens rights association in Grenoble, which also has projects to help the handicapped and poor people. But he says Muslims are always suspected of having a hidden agenda.

ELIES BEN AZIB: We say we only want to go to the swimming pool, nothing else. Yeah, but after the swimming pool, you will ask for, you know, separate time to swim. And then after that, we will ask to pray in the swimming pool. And then you will ask to open a mosque in the swimming pool. Come on, guys. Just be serious. We just want to go swim.

BEARDSLEY: In the association's office across from the train station, I meet two of the group's volunteer community organizers, Yasmina and Anissa. The women, one a mother, are in their early 30s. They don't want to give their last names because they've gotten online threats. Anissa says it all started quite simply four years ago.

ANISSA: (Through interpreter) We met some women who felt discriminated against because they couldn't get into the pools due to their hijab and because they couldn't wear a regular bathing suit. So here they were, making picnic lunches for their kids and husbands to go to the pool, but they couldn't join them.

BEARDSLEY: She says Grenoble gets very hot in the summer when the surrounding mountains trap the heat, and people depend on the public pools to cool off. The women began their campaign with letters and meetings with local officials. When nothing moved, they held a few pool parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: They were joined by many non-Muslim activists. Wearing burkinis and bikinis, they splashed around and chanted slogans in the pool. The events made a splash in the media, but not always a positive one. Another time, the activists filmed as the police blocked them from entering a pool.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The women say burkinis have nothing to do with Islamist extremism because extremists would never let their wives go to a pool, they say. The group got 2,600 signatures on its petition to allow the burkini. Only 50 were required for a meeting with town officials. Yasmina says they're proud and feel powerful, even if their measure is currently blocked.

YASMINA: (Through interpreter) We got this issue on the town council's agenda and are supported by the mayor. We are now taken seriously by feminist organizations who didn't consider our struggle feminist at first. These are victories for us and for Grenoble.

BEARDSLEY: Ben Azib says the group was inspired by the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement - lunch counter sit-ins and other non-violent acts of civil disobedience from individuals like Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

BEN AZIB: It's interesting to see how one single woman can change everything, you know, the narrative around segregation, etc. It was very inspiring for us, and we tried to do the same here.

BEARDSLEY: He says these activists want to change the way Muslim women are viewed in France. The court's decision on whether to allow the burkini in Grenoble's pools is expected any day. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Grenoble.

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