By Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) – A bill banning the wearing of the hijab in sports competitions will be sent to France’s National Assembly after the Senate refused to vote on the legislation on Wednesday.
The broader bill is devoted to the “democratization of sport”, including how major sports federations are governed. But it includes a clause, previously annexed as an amendment by the upper house with a conservative majority, stipulating that the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols is prohibited” in events and competitions organized by sports federations.
This decision is however opposed by the centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron and his allies who have a majority in the National Assembly, which has the final vote.
The place of religion and religious symbols worn in public has been a long-standing controversial issue in France, a staunchly secular country and home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority.
The identity and place of Islam in French society are burning issues ahead of the April presidential election, with two far-right candidates whose nationalist agendas challenge the compatibility of Islam. Islam with the values of the Republic, winning nearly 35% of the voters’ votes.
Elsewhere, divisions over the hijab – the traditional hair and neck covering worn by Muslim women – have stoked protests in the Indian state of Karnataka after authorities there banned the garment in classrooms.
The Macron government was quick to denounce the amendment. Given the majority held by his party and its allies in the lower house, the amendment is likely to be dropped from the broader bill.
“Our enemy is radical Islamism, not Islam,” said Marlene Schiappa, Minister Delegate for Citizenship, on Tuesday.
France will host the Summer Olympics in 2024 and critics of the legislation have questioned how it would affect the protocol at the Games, whose participants will include conservative Muslim countries, if passed.
Right-wing senator Stéphane Piednoir said the Olympic Charter provided for political and religious neutrality.
“We cannot compromise secularism and France cannot undermine the Olympic movement,” Piednoir told the upper house.
He said the bill was intended to allow “all women to participate in sports competitions without any differentiation, without any sign of discrimination, without any symbol related to the veil which we know is a political tool”.
The charter of the Olympics states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted at Olympic venues, locations or other areas”.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough, Editing by Tassilo Hummel)