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French firms told they can ban staff from wearing Muslim headscarves at work

French companies have been given the green light to ban staff from wearing the Muslim headscarf and other religious symbols in the workplace in a ruling from the European Court of Justice, which said it does not constitute discrimination.

French firms told they can ban staff from wearing Muslim headscarves at work
Photo: AFP

Will companies in strictly secular France now line up to introduce rules banning staff from wearing the hijab and other religious symbols at work?

The European Court of Justice has made a landmark ruling that could pave the way for a new front in France's controversial relationship with the Muslim headscarf.

After studying the case of a software engineer in France, who was dismissed for refusing to take off her headscarf, judges at the European Court of Justice ruled that companies would not be discriminating against workers if they chose to enforce a ban on religious symbols.

“An internal rule of an undertaking [firm] which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination,” the court said.

But the court added that company clients cannot just demand that workers take off their headscarves if there is no rule already in place, the court said.

French woman Asma Bougnaoui was fired from an IT consultancy firm Micropole following a complaint from a customer who said his staff had been “embarrassed” by her headscarf while she was on their premises.

The court's adviser had ruled that she had suffered discrimination because she had been “professionally competent”. The court of justice said it was now for a French court to decide if she was unfairly dismissed.

The case had been closely watched in France, where the question of whether companies should be allowed to ban Muslim staff from wearing the veil has long been a divisive issue.

France has already banned the wearing of the hijab by pupils in schools and employees in state buildings in 2004 on the grounds of secularism.

While the ban focused on all religious symbols, many Muslims felt the law was directly targeted at them in order to try to reduce the influence of Islam.

Since 2004 politicians have wanted to extend the headscarf ban to other areas.

There have been regular calls to ban students from wearing the hijab and the far right Marine Le Pen, who is riding high in the polls and expected to make the crucial run-off vote in the presidential election in May, wants to ban the women from wearing the headscarf in all pubic places. 

Opinion polls suggest the public are overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on religious symbols at work – some 84 percent according to a 2014 poll.

Those in favour of a veil ban at work also cite a report in April 2015 that showed religious conflict was on the rise in work environments.

The survey revealed almost a quarter of managers (23 percent) said they were regularly confronted with religious issues in the workplace – almost double the figure from the previous year..

Sources of religious conflict included the wearing of religious symbols (17 percent), demanding more flexible working hours (12 percent), requesting time off for religious holidays (19 percent) or refusing to work with a woman (in four percent of cases).

(Muslim school mums protest in Paris at being barred from going on school trips if they wear a headscarf. Photo: AFP)

Some companies in France have already taken the initiative to ban religious symbols.

In February 2014 a privately-owned French company claimed to have become the first in the country to ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other prominent religious symbols at work.

The 4,000 workers at recycling company Paprec, based in the Parisian suburbs, will no longer be allowed to demonstrate their religious faith by wearing items like the Yarmulke/Kippah (the Jewish skullcap), Christian crosses and Muslim head or face covers.

Paprec’s CEO Jean-Luc Petithuguenin justified the ruling by saying:

“I am applying the same model that prevails in the public sphere, only I am applying it to a company,” he told AFP. “I am applying the founding principles of the French republic.”

Critics said the move was illegal but other companies in France, backed by the European Court of Justice, may now follow suit.

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Erdogan calls French separatism bill ‘guillotine’ of democracy

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday denounced a planned French law designed to counter "Islamist separatism" as a "guillotine" of democracy.

Erdogan calls French separatism bill 'guillotine' of democracy
Erdogan has already denounced the proposed measures as "anti-Muslim". Photo: Adem ALTAN/AFP

The draft legislation has been criticised both inside France and abroad for stigmatising Muslims and giving the state new powers to limit speech and religious groups.

“The adoption of this law, which is openly in contradiction of human rights, freedom of religion and European values, will be a guillotine blow inflicted on French democracy,” said Erdogan in a speech in Ankara.

The current version of the planned law would only serve the cause of extremism, putting NGOs under pressure and “forcing young people to choose between their beliefs and their education”, he added.

READ ALSO: What’s in France’s new law to crack down on Islamist extremism?

“We call on the French authorities, and first of all President (Emmanuel) Macron, to act sensibly,” he continued. “We expect a rapid withdrawal of this bill.”

Erdogan also said he was ready to work with France on security issues and integration, but relations between the two leaders have been strained for some time.

France’s government is in the process of passing new legislation to crack down on what it has termed “Islamist separatism”, which would give the state more power to vet and disband religious groups judged to be threats to the nation.

Erdogan has already denounced the proposed measures as “anti-Muslim”.

READ ALSO: Has Macron succeeded in creating an ‘Islam for France’?

Last October, Erdogan questioned Macron’s “mental health”, accusing him of waging a “campaign of hatred” against Islam, after the French president defended the right of cartoonists to caricature the prophet Mohammed.

The two countries are also at odds on a number of other issues, including Libya, Syria and the eastern Mediterranean.

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