The highest French administrative court (“Conseil d’État”) blows the whistle: a ruling in favour of neutrality in sport

Adopted in 2016, Article 1 of the regulations of the French Football Federation (FFF) prohibits “the wearing of any sign or clothing ostensibly expressing a political, philosophical, religious or trade union affiliation“.

Opposing this regulation, the associations “Contre-Attaque” and “Alliance Citoyenne”, along with the Human Rights League (“Ligue des droits de l’Homme”), took the case to the highest French administrative court (“Conseil État”) to challenge this provision, which would result in a ban on the wearing of the hijab by female players during football matches.

The players’ collectives and associations were relying on a FIFA regulation which, since 2014, has allowed players to play in international competitions wearing their hijab.

In addition, the public rapporteur had initially recommended a ruling in favour of the applicants. In his lengthy conclusions (more than thirty pages long), he took the view that there was neither proselytism nor provocation in the wearing of the hijab. A distinction had to be made between public service employees and public service users. In his view, freedom to manifest religious beliefs should apply to the latter category.

The Conseil d’État[1] ruled otherwise, pointing out that although football players are users of a public service, sports federations, which are responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the public service whose management has been entrusted to them, may impose an obligation on players to wear neutral clothing during competitions and sporting events. This neutrality requirement is justified in order to “guarantee the smooth running of matches and prevent any confrontation“.

The Conseil d’État is following in the footsteps of its previous rulings by upholding the ban on wearing the hijab in football stadiums. Previously, it had adopted the same type of reasoning in a ruling of 14 February 2018, Human Rights League, concerning the ban on the Burkini on Corsican beaches, on the grounds of the threat of brawls[2] .

This case demonstrates a certain caution on the part of the Conseil d’État regarding the wearing of religious symbols in sport.

[1] Conseil d’Etat – decision no. 458088-4595478-463408 of 29 June 2023