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For Muslim soccer players in deeply secular France, observing Ramadan is a tall order, and this is not about to change.

Wielding the principle of religious neutrality enshrined in the French constitution, the country's soccer federation does not make things easy for international players who want to refrain from drinking or eating from dawn to sunset during the Islamic holy month.

Ahead of training camps which took place in March, the federation made clear it would not change the schedule for meals and practices to accommodate players who want to fully observe the religious ritual.

Some left-wing politicians, coaches and former players were outraged; the federation denied accusations of religious discrimination.

The secular outlook in France also prevents league referees from authorizing pauses in games to allow Muslim players to break their fast with a quick bite and drink on the sidelines during evening matches. Such breaks have been authorized in nearby countries such as Germany, England and the Netherlands.

French secularism, while affirming religious freedom, provides that the state does not favor any religion and remains neutral. The French soccer federation (FFF) says part of its mission is to defend the country's strict adherence to secularism in public life.

Critics say this leads to anti-Muslim rules.

''You want to forbid them to be Muslim. Whether we like it or not, it's part of their identity that we're trying to erase,'' said Demba Ba, the former Senegal international player who was born in France and is Muslim.

He says he fasted for Ramadan throughout his professional career, even on match days. He has described particularly hard days when he played in the English Premier League with Newcastle, with matches sometimes scheduled at 1 p.m. in the summer, when the sun sets late in this part of England.

While Catholicism remains the leading religion, Islam is France's second-largest faith, encompassing an estimated 10% of the population.

FRANCE'S LACK OF RAMADAN ACCOMMODATIONS GOES AGAINST TREND

In Muslim countries, clubs shift their training schedule to make it easier for players who fast during Ramadan. In recent years, Western countries have followed suit and France's approach seems increasingly isolated.

In the English Premier League, captains of clubs with Muslim players can arrange with match officials to create a pause at sundown to allow players to break their fast. Soccer officials in Australia have adopted the same approach, introducing breaks for players observing Ramadan for the first time this season. In the U.S., Major League Soccer introduced drink breaks last year.

In addition, some Premier League teams have signed a Muslim athletes' charter, pledging to create a more inclusive environment.

In France, meanwhile, Nantes coach Antoine Kombouare said last year he helped his players adapt their schedule to Ramadan's requirements, but fasting on game day was not an option.

Kombouare would let the players fast during the week, but on match day he would not select those who do.

''I respect that a player fasts. But on the other hand, he has to respect the rules I've put in place, and that goes for everyone,'' Kombouare said.

Philippe Diallo, the FFF president, denies accusations the federation is effectively banning Ramadan observance due to its stringent rules.

''No one at the federation, starting with me, has forbidden anyone to fast,'' Diallo told France Info media. ''I can't accept people saying that the FFF discriminates on religious grounds.''

The FFF says fasting players are allowed to skip meals and offered medical advice. It also contends that Muslim players who choose to postpone their fasting days will have a valid excuse in the eyes of religious authorities.

The controversy — spotlighted last year when France Under-23 players reportedly threatened to go on strike for the right to fast — grew after Habib Beye, the coach of Paris-based Red Star, criticized the federation's framework related to religious fasting.

''I truly respect my players' faith of any kind,'' Beye said last week. ''I also have players practicing Lent. One only sees the downsides, but I only see the benefits. It creates cohesion, discussions, a solidarity that people may not see on a football pitch.''

Beye, who says he's the son of a Muslim and a Catholic, believes the strict rules are imposed only on Muslim players.

''I call it religious discrimination,'' he said.

Water and dates are the traditional Muslim way to break the fast during Ramadan. Last year, Paris Saint-Germain fans mocked the federation rules by deploying during a match a banner that read: ''A date, a glass of water: the FFF's nightmare.''

SOCCER LIMITS REFUEL SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE DEBATE

The polemics are refueling the lingering debate on secularism — still volatile more than a century after the 1905 law on separation of church and state that established it as a principle of the French Republic. The country's constitution states, ''France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.''

Razika Adnani, a secular philosopher who studies how people relate to Islam, welcomed the FFF decision to maintain its ban on breaking the fast during matches. By refusing such pauses, she said the federation protects Muslims who do not fast — but might pretend they fast, and refrain from drinking water, to avoid reprisals from Muslim fans.

''Originally, breaking the fast was a private matter,'' she wrote in an op-ed piece for the newspaper Le Figaro. ''It was done at home with the family or in restaurants. Interrupting matches to allow players to break their Ramadan fast, which is more than just a 'refreshing break,' is tantamount to establishing this Ramadan atmosphere on the soccer pitch and imposing it on all players, all supporters, all viewers, in a form of fait accompli.''

There were no Ramadan-linked incidents reported during the latest gathering of senior French international players. But there were reports in French media last week that Lyon midfielder Mahamadou Diawara declined to join the France Under-19s training camp when he found out about the rules relating to religious fasting. Asked for comments, Lyon and the French federation did not give a reason for Diawara's refusal to attend.

To guarantee a neutral approach, Diallo said there can't be any changes to timetables and common practices at training camps purely on religious grounds.

''I respect everyone's convictions,'' he said. ''When players are selected for the French national team, I don't ask them about their religion.''

The FFF insists the rules are not anti-Islam and that players who might want to observe Lent-related fasting, for instance, would also have to observe the federation's framework and would not be accommodated.

The polemics are reminiscent of the heated debate that emerged when France's highest administrative court ruled last year that the French soccer federation was entitled to ban headscarves in competitions, even though the measure could limit freedom of expression.

The Council of State issued its ruling after a group of headscarf-wearing soccer players called ''Les Hijabeuses'' — the word hijab refers to the headscarf — campaigned against the ban and launched legal action.

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