By MARIA DANILOVA
PARIS -- A Muslim woman garbed in a head-to-toe swimsuit -- dubbed a "burquini" -- may have opened a new chapter in France's tussle between religious practices and its stern secular code.
Officials insisted Wednesday that they banned the woman's use of the Islam-friendly suit at a local pool because of France's pool hygiene standards -- not out of hostility to overtly Muslim garb.
Under the policy, swimmers are not allowed in pools with baggy clothing, including surfer-style shorts. Only figure-hugging suits are permitted.
Nonetheless the woman, a 35-year-old convert to Islam identified as Carole, complained of religious discrimination after trying to go swimming in a full-body swimsuit in the town of Emerainville, southeast of Paris.
She told the Le Parisien newspaper that she had bought the burquini after deciding that "it would allow me the pleasure of bathing without showing too much of myself, as Islam recommends."
The issue of religious attire is a hot topic in France, where head-to-toe burqas or other full-body coverings worn by some Muslim fundamentalists are in official disfavor.
France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated at 5 million.
French lawmakers recently revived the issue of Muslim dress with a proposal that the burqa and other voluminous Muslim attire be banned.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative, backs the move, saying such garb makes women prisoners.
The "burquini" covers the arms to the wrists and the legs to the ankles and has a hood to cover neck and hair.
An official in charge of swimming pools for the Emerainville region, Daniel Guillaume, said the refusal to allow the local woman to swim in her "burquini" had everything to do with public health standards.
"These clothes are used in public, so they can contain molecules, viruses, et cetera, which will go in the water and could be transmitted to other bathers," Guillaume said in a telephone interview.
Guillaume said France's public health standards require all pool-goers to don swimsuits for women and tight briefs for men -- and caps to cover their hair. Bathers also must shower before entering the water.
Emerainville Mayor Alan Kelyor said he could not understand why the woman would want to swim in head-to-toe clothes.
"We are going back in civilization," he said by telephone. Women have fought for decades for equal rights with men, he said. "Now we are putting them back in burqas and veils."
The suits have a clear market.
Women "jump on the occasion so they can swim with their families. Otherwise, they end up staying on the beach and watching," said Leila Mouhoubia, who runs an online site from France that specializes in the sale of Islamic swimsuits. Sales, she said, are strong.
The all-body suits, worn regularly by some women in Muslim countries, are growing popular in the West. They can be seen on female Muslim lifeguards on Australian beaches, in the United States and various European countries, from the Netherlands to Sweden -- which OK'd them after two women won discrimination cases last year.