French bill 'democratising sport' moved to National Assembly

PARIS, Feb 16 (Reuters) - (This February 16 story corrected headline and paragraphs 1, 2, 3 and 7 of Feb 16 story to show amendment relating to hijab had been removed before returning to Senate)

A draft bill that would "democratise sport" in France passed to the National Assembly after the Senate declined to vote on the legislation.

The legislation includes how the big sporting federations are governed. It had included 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, but this was removed by the lower house.

The amendment had been 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 about 30% 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. read more

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 wasalways 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 Stephane 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."

Editing by Richard Lough

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