Supporters of the women soccer team "Les Hijabeuses" play soccer in front of the city hall in Lille as part of a protest as French Senate examines a bill featuring controversial hijab ban in competitive sports in France, February 16, 2022.
A draft bill that would ban the wearing of the hijab in sporting competitions will pass on to France's National Assembly after the Senate on Wednesday declined to vote on the legislation.
The broader bill is devoted to "democratising sport", including how the big sporting federations are governed. But it includes a clause, previously attached as an amendment by the conservative-dominated upper house, stipulating that the wearing “of conspicuous religious symbols is prohibited” in events and competitions organised by sports federations.
The move is, however, opposed by President Emmanuel Macron's centrist government and its allies who command a majority in the National Assembly, which has the final vote.
The place of religion and religious symbols worn in public is a long-running matter of controversy in France, a staunchly secular country and home to Europe's largest Muslim minority.
Identity and Islam's place in French society are hot-button issues ahead of April's presidential election, with two far-right candidates whose nationalist programmes question Islam's compatibility with the Republic's values polling nearly 35% of voter support between them.
Elsewhere, divisions over the hijab - the traditional covering of the hair and neck worn by Muslim women - have fanned protests in the Indian state of Karnataka after authorities there banned the garment in school classrooms.
Macron's government had been swift to denounce the amendment. Given the majority wielded by his party and its allies in the lower house, the amendment is likely to be removed from the broader bill.
"Our enemy is radical Islamism, not Islam," Marlene Schiappa, junior minister for citizenship, said on Tuesday.
France will host the Summer Olympics in 2024 and critics of the legislation have questioned how it would affect protocol at the Games, whose participants will include conservative Muslim countries, if it were adopted.
Right-wing Senator Stéphane Piednoir said the Olympic Charter provided for political and religious neutrality.
"We cannot compromise secularism and France cannot undercut the Olympic movement," Piednoir told the upper house.
He said the bill was designed to allow "all women to participate in sports competitions without any differentiation, without any sign of discrimination, without any symbol linked to the veil which we know is a political tool".
The Olympics charter states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; writing by Richard Lough, editing by Tassilo Hummel