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In France, When Islam Enters The Workplace

Both private and public French organizations are trying to strike the right balance between respecting beliefs among Muslim employees and keeping company welfare in mind.

In France, When Islam Enters The Workplace
Audrey Tonnelier

PARIS — While the government hopes to improve "the detection of radicalization in companies," the business world didn't wait for the tragic Nov. 13 terrorist attacks to address religious issues in the workplace.

"The first company guides appeared in the mid-2000s in public sector groups, American companies or companies that were strongly established in certain neighborhoods," explains Sophie Gherardi, head of the Contemporary Religion Study Center, a specialized think tank.

But the matter has taken on new and more sobering proportions over the past few years. In April, almost a quarter of managers (23%) said that they were confronted with a religious issue at least once per month in their companies, almost twice as much as in 2014 (12%), according to annual survey carried out by the Observatory for Religion in Companies.

"Most situations are easily manageable, but contentious cases or ones that could be viewed as obstructive have doubled in a year, from 3% to 6%," says Lionel Honoré, head of the observatory. Gherardi adds, "In the vast majority of cases, the issues concern Muslim people."


Historically, car manufacturers were the first concerned. Prayer rooms were created in French factories following strikes in the 1980s. "Today, the same names still reappear: Air France, Paris Airports (ADP), the Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transports (RATP)," says Jean-Louis Malys, national secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor.

"It's not a company issue but more of a social one," Honoré says. "Companies aren't outside society. The ones that run into situations of excess, located on the outskirts of large cities, often employ low-skilled workers in the transport, logistics, construction, cleaning or food-processing sectors."

Amid current political and security realities, these groups prefer to keep a low profile. RATP found itself at the center of unwanted attention during the week that followed the Paris attacks, after daily newspaper Le Parisien reported that it was among the companies that had the most employees targeted by Fiche S, an indicator used by French law enforcement to flag individuals considered to be linked to terrorism. The public company appeals to its charter of secularism but still needs to convince employees internally. "We pretend to believe the problem has been solved," a former executive says anonymously. "The reality is that managers in contact with radicalized individuals are left on their own to handle these kind of things in bus depots."

Problems also exist in private companies. In Toulouse, a computer engineer at the IT services company Micropole Univers was fired for refusing to remove her headscarf when she came to work for her client. Since April, she's been awaiting a verdict from the Court of Justice of the European Union.

"Problems remain marginal, but they create significant tension when they appear," says Nicolas Cadène, of the Observatory of Secularism, which published a guide last year about management of religion in private companies. "Hence the necessity for prevention."

In France, the issue is complex for private companies. Unlike public service, where religious neutrality is the rule, in the private sector, "the 1905 law on secularism guarantees freedom of conscience, including for religion," Cadène says. There are limits, though, to ensure respect for others and the organization. "Wearing a religious symbol is often OK, but disrupting the functioning of the company or infringing on employees' assignments is not."


To head off problems or solve them, he says it's important to refer to objective criteria "Notifying an employee that a very long beard is not hygienic to serve food in a canteen, for instance, is proper, as is forbidding the distribution of leaflets promoting anti-gay-marriage protests. The person's job has to inform the judgment. An employee working in the meat department of a supermarket can't refuse to handle pork," he says.

Most often, pragmatism is the best solution. In the case of a warehouse of the supermarket chain Super U, in Montpellier, where employees asked a few months ago that they not be asked to prepare packages containing alcoholic products or pork, logic prevailed. "Solutions were found thanks to an imam, who explained to the employees that, if it was to earn a living and they didn't consume these products, they could handle them," a source at the distributor says.

At Bouygues Construction, a traditional headdress is not a problem as long as it fits under the hardhat. At BNP Paribas, there are also no restrictions on wearing a headscarf or a kippah, "except for the employees who are in direct contact with customers, who are required to have neutral clothing, devoid of religious signs," says Barbara Levéel, the bank's head of diversity.

As for Orange, it has set up scheduling systems for employees to be able to take days off during religious holidays, and people who wish to fast can also make schedule arrangements. ADP allows religious practices during breaks and has opened five spiritual centers, designed for both the passengers of the Roissy and Orly airports and their employees.

"The idea is to find the right balance by meeting employees demands but without forgetting about the general interest," Cadène explains. Opening communal prayer rooms to all religions, for example, is a practical solution, as is establishing menus without meat, which would suit Muslims, Jews and vegetarians alike.

Lionel Honoré, from the observatory, would like things to be more firm. "We're still struggling to punish radical behaviors, because they scare people," he says. "A person who doesn't take off her veil in front of a customer will be punished, while an employee who refuses to work in the same room as a woman will sometimes just be the subject of a change of position," the researcher says with regret. The challenge is serious, he notes. "The good functioning of a company is at risk, but also the freedom of all the employees, for whom professional life comes before the practice of religion."

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