French firms wrestle with rising religious demands

Bulk of cases involve Muslims seeking prayer time, halal food, says report
French firms wrestle with rising religious demands
Muslim people pray at the parc Chanot in Marseille, southern France.The country is home to around five million Muslims
By Reuters
Sun 18 Sep 2011 04:36 PM

French companies are increasingly facing religious demands from their employees and need a change in the labour code to be able to reject requests they find unreasonable, an official report said on Thursday.

Most cases concern Muslims seeking time off for prayers or halal food in company cafeterias, but demands have also come from other faith groups as well as workers resentful of colleagues who get special treatment, officials said.

In recent years, France has banned religious dress such as Muslim headscarves in state schools and full facial veils in public, but it has no laws covering religious issues that may arise in private companies.

The High Council for Integration (HCI) report suggested a labour code amendment allowing companies "to include in their internal rules clauses about clothing, religious insignia and religious practices in the company".

Giving legal force to rules restricting religion in the workplace would ensure equal treatment for all employees and protect companies from discrimination suits based on religion, it added.

"The principles of neutrality and impartiality favour the correct functioning of a company," the report said. "So the absence of any expression of religion, be it a practice or ostentatious insignia, is strongly recommended."

Alain Seksig, author of the report, said the proposal would go to Prime Minister Francois Fillon and any change in the labour code would need to be approved by parliament.

France's legal separation of church and state relegates religion to the private sphere, an approach challenged by a growing Islamic identity among some of the five million Muslims in the country's 65 million population.

The report gave no figures for the extent of demands for exceptions linked to religion but said they came up so often in hearings the HCI had conducted that they merited attention.

HCI chairman Patrick Gaubert told journalists his council had learned of hundreds of cases of religious demands in companies in recent years and found they were appearing in many regions around the country.

In one case, a private creche outside Paris fired a Muslim employee after she began wearing a headscarf and long robe to work and claiming it was her religious right to do so.

She contested her dismissal on the grounds that the public bans on religious clothing did not apply in a private business, but the court ruled the creche had the right to set limits.

Natalia Baleato, director of the creche, told journalists that some Muslim employees refused to take children swimming because they thought bathing suits were immodest and others threw away desserts and sweets that might contain pork gelatin.

Two parents who were Jehovah's Witnesses did not want their child to attend parties at the creche and a Catholic employee annoyed by Muslim demands for special treatment refused to work at Easter and Christmas, she added.

"These religious questions take a lot of time to manage," she said.

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