French Firms Face Increasing Muslim Demands in Workplace

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Managers of French companies have increasingly been reporting workplace problems with many incidents relating to Muslims trying to force others to observe their practices, a new study showed.

The report was based  on the study by university researchers in Rennes and the international recruitment agency Randstad. Reuters reported that forty-three percent of staff managers reported “faith-related” problems at work, and forty-one percent expected the problems to increase in the future.

"These initial results show the issue of religion at work exists and is not a marginal question," the study said.

The CIA reports that five to ten percent of the French population is Muslim – between five and six million, the largest in Western Europe.

The researchers report that many problems have stemmed from adherents trying to force their beliefs onto others. The study says that some strict Muslims have been trying to prevent non-observant Muslims from eating at work during the holy period of Ramadan. Others have insisted on praying and wearing religious garbs at work.

Some Muslim men have refused to shake hands or take orders from female bosses, and others have refused handling alcohol or pork products.

Many cases concern Muslims wanting time off for prayers or requesting that halal food be served in company cafeterias. Demands have also come from other faith groups, as well as workers resentful of colleagues who get special treatment, officials said.

The French government has had to deal with controversy over its repeated attempts to ban headscarves and other religious garments from being worn in public. In March 2004, the government overwhelmingly approved a ban on Islamic garments and other religious symbols, including Christian crosses, from being worn in state schools.

The law was signed by former President Jacques Chirac, and current President Francois Hollande has voiced his support for further curbs on headscarves. Full-face veils, such as burkas and niqabs, are already banned in public places, something to which Muslims have repeatedly voiced their opposition.

France also bars teachers, postal workers and other civil servants from wearing items such as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or Christian crosses at work.  However, there are no laws that cover religious issues that may arise in private companies.

The BBC notes that as much as 80 percent of French society supports the ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves to work.

Patrick Gaubert, chairman of The High Council for Integration (HCI), told journalists that his council had been informed of hundreds of cases of religious demands in companies in recent years and that they were appearing in more and more regions around the country.

A private nursery near Paris fired a Muslim employee after she began wearing a headscarf and long robe to work while claiming that it was her religious right to do so and that the public bans on religious clothing did not apply in a private business. However, the court ruled the nursery had the right to set limits.

The director of the nursery, Natalia Baleato, said that some Muslim employees refused to take children swimming because they thought bathing suits were immodest, while others threw away candies and desserts they thought may contain pork gelatin.

Companies are free to set their own internal rules, but French believe that the rules also apply to the private sector. Some firms, when possible, acquiesce to employees' requests, while others apply strict bans on anything remotely religious at the workplace.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org