Ramadan: The challenges of fasting for a month in France

Millions of Muslims across France will begin fasting for the holy month of Ramadan on Thursday. From an Uber taxi driver to a boulangerie vendor, we hear from some of those who will undertake the fast, which is far from easy in a non-Muslim country where the national hobby is eating.

Ramadan: The challenges of fasting for a month in France
Photo: AFP

On Thursday Muslims across the world will embark upon a month long fast during daylight hours for the holy month of Ramadan.

The traditional fast is never an easy undertaking, but it's arguably much harder for those living in a non-Muslim, northern European country like France where the days are long and the country's favourite hobby is eating and drinking.

Naturally being a secular, non-Muslim country, France is not really adapted to cater to the peculiarities of the holy month.

In some Muslim majority countries, schools and offices start late and end early, restaurants only offer special Ramadan buffets punctually anticipated for customers to break their fast, and even shopping malls trim down their hours, conveniently setting them between 9pm to 2am.

Yet there are an estimated 5.7 million Muslims in France – some 8.8 percent of the population – according to a 2017 report by the Pew Research Center.

So over the next month, millions of practicing Muslims will have to abstain from drinking, eating, smoking and sexual relations every day from sunrise to sundown.

With France’s current sunrise around 6am and sundown around 9:30 pm, fasting Muslims in France are looking at over 15 hours of going without food and water. 

A quest that many will find impossible to imagine let alone undertake. We spoke to several Muslims in France about what the trials and tribulations of the fast are like.

The Boulangerie Vendor

Saoussen, 30, is a Tunisian native. She works at a Boulangerie in a bustling area of the 19th district of Paris.

“It’s a matter of courage, you just have to do it, this is our religion. Of course, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult, it’s certainly much easier back in the Bled with shorter fasting hours.” Bled is a term many North Africans use to describe their home country.

Saoussen starts work at rush hour everyday with lots of hungry Parisians looking to pick up their lunch on the go. 

“It’s not really the smell of food which unhinges me. The hardest part I would say is the feeling of thirst and a dry throat.”

She believes fasting is akin with someone trying to cut down on caffeine. “If you’ve ever tried to quit coffee by going cold turkey, you’ll need a few days before your body adjusts. Fasting is the same in the sense that over time, it becomes more tolerable. I think the people who have it worse are those who need a cigarette. I have a friend who smokes, and she suffers every Ramadan.”

The Uber Driver

Omar, a 64 year old Uber driver from Morocco says you simply have to adapt.

“I’m used to multitasking while fasting. Besides, it’s all in the head, not the body.” Thankfully for his passengers Omar does take some precautions.

“We make sure we aren’t driving recklessly by getting enough sleep and catching Suhour.” Suhour is the early and often hearty meal taken before sunrise.

During last year's Ramadan, Parisians noted how it was much harder to find an Uber driver in the evening when Muslims were able to break the fast.

“I’d say three quarters of Uber drivers around Paris are Muslims,” said Omar. “There are three categories. Those like myself who end their shifts to enjoy the joyous moment of breaking one’s fast with family, those who take a short break at a café, and those who choose to continue taking clients because they haven’t earned enough that day.”

Although he recalls a time when he once broke the fast with a passenger

“I actually once broke my fast with a regular client I had picked up from the airport. I set up a blanket, some dates, soup, and Moroccan pastries. It was quite romantic! Well, professionally speaking,” he said.

The Crêperie Vendor

Abdul Hadi, 37, is Algerian. He works part  time at a little crêperie restaurant in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, where he says a constant flow of French and American tourists pass by on their way to visit Montmartre. He is not too concerned with the difficulties of fasting whilst working in an environment surrounded by food, on the contrary, he is quite thankful to attract clients.

“Ramadan is a personal choice. I’m not forced to fast, I choose to.”

“I say Alhamdulillah. There’s a lot of pressure to work and earn, so I’m not complaining. I’m also used to it, I do it every year, and I’m not much of a foodie either, so I can fast while preparing crêpes for customers.” 

The Customer Service Agent

Ambrosio, 32, originally from Senegal works for SFR, a French telecommunications company and is stationed at one of its central Parisian stores dealing with clients.

He says his main hardship during Ramadan is not being able to drink. “Water is essential. You’re on your feet all day talking to clients, explaining your product, it’s not easy.”

When it comes to hygiene, Ambrosio says he brushes his teeth come midday to avoid bad breath from not eating all day.

His job also requires him on any day to pander to clients, which means extra discipline not to get irritated during the fast.

“Sometimes clients aren’t exactly polite, and I have less patience when I’m fasting, but I make the effort.”

Ambrosio says the fasting can make him feel a little cut off from his non-Muslim colleagues but most of them he says are understanding.

“We regularly take lunch breaks together, so not being able to share meals during this period can make me feel isolated sometimes, but it’s not a big deal. Some even ask if I mind them eating in front of me, but that’s not an issue, people have to eat,” he said.

The University Student

Sabine, 21, from Algeria, is in her second year of medical school at Université Paris-Diderot, and there's no doubt she would find Ramadan easier if she was back home.

“It’s a lot easier when you’re back home, during the summer” she said. “There’s air conditioning, you can sleep until noon, and everyone around you is fasting, so you feel pressured to conform. Personally, it’s become more of a cultural thing than a religious thing.”

She also admits that she fasts not just for cultural or religious reasons.

“To be completely frank, I fast when I wish to cleanse my body, it’s really for my health,” she said.

Some medical experts believe intermittent fasting can help one lose belly fat, lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, and may even help prevent cancer.

But this year the student says she will abstain from fasting because the holy month coincides with her important university exams.

“My exams start in a week, and honestly it’s just impossible for me to concentrate while fasting. Your brain needs food to function.”

For those unfamiliar with Ramadan, it is a special month Muslims celebrate as the month the Quran first came to be revealed upon the Prophet Mohammed by the angel Gabriel.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, along with believing in Allah and his prophet Mohammed, praying five times a day, carrying out charity, and performing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

There are certain exceptions for people who don't have to fast. Young children are not required to fast nor are menstruating or pregnant women and mums who are breastfeeding.

The exception also applies to the orderly, the sickly, and the mentally challenged, as well as to travelers and those at war.

by Lina Agabani Puch


How Ramadan has made it harder to find Uber drivers in Paris at night

Taxi ride app Uber has noticed a big drop in the number of drivers available in Paris at evenings and customers have seen the cost of their ride home jump. There’s a simple explanation.

How Ramadan has made it harder to find Uber drivers in Paris at night

You don’t normally have to wait too long in Paris for your Uber driver to turn up, even in the evening.

But since last Saturday that’s changed slightly.

Users of the taxi ride app have noticed how drivers are much harder to come by and even bosses of the company have seen the change.

“Yes we have observed this trend,” Uber told Le Parisien newspaper.

“This is also the same case during certain cultural and sporting events, when drivers will disconnect from the app,” said Uber.

This time it’s all to do with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The reason why many drivers make themselves unavailable in the evening is all to do with the fasting that observers are required to do.

Those Muslims strictly observing Ramadan must avoid intake of any food or water from dawn until sunset, which in Paris right now is between 9.30pm and 10pm.

When fasting ends Muslims will normally immediately take time to eat and drink.

While many Muslim Uber drivers will replenish their energy quickly and get back on the road, others will take time to have a meal with their families, hence the reason why it might be harder to find an Uber cab after 9.30pm.

“It’s logical that Ramadan could have an impact,” said Uber France’s Grégoire Kopp previously. “That’s due to the fact the majority of drivers using Uber's app are from suburbs, meaning potentially North African and of Muslim faith.”

Uber has successfully recruited thousands of drivers throughout immigrant suburbs around Paris and other French cities, due in part to the fact the app offers rare prospect of work for those living in areas of high-unemployment and where many locals with North African origins complain of discrimination when applying for regular jobs.

Union leader Sayah Baaroun had a message for any Parisians who might feel like complaining about the price hike of their ride home from the brasserie or the extra wait they might have to endure.

“Are these people who are complaining because they have to wait five minutes even thinking about the health of the drivers?” Baaroun told Le Parisien.

“Uber targets the [Muslim] community in its recruitment and they are treated as cannon fodder so they have the right to enjoy this moment.”