After Paris Terror Attacks, France Struggles With Faith on the Job
Bachir B. was a passenger screener at Orly
airport, south of Paris, until he was fired. He had been cited for
failing to adequately trim the thick beard that he wears in keeping with
his Muslim beliefs.
A week after the terrorist attacks in France last November, Bachir B., a passenger screener at Orly airport south of Paris, was called into his manager’s office. Bachir, a devout Muslim who wears a thick beard in keeping with his faith, was ordered to trim his facial hair. His boss even offered to buy him a beard clipper as a birthday gift.
While supervisors had sometimes reminded him of a company dress code requiring whiskers to be kept “tidy” and “short,” Bachir said that the rule had been enforced only sporadically over his six years working for Securitas, a private security company. This time, the manager made clear that the new crackdown was “because of what was happening in the news,” said Bachir, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his family’s privacy.
Bachir trimmed his beard that weekend. But he said his boss sent him home about 10 days later, again citing his failure to comply with the dress code. Soon after, Bachir received a registered letter from Securitas, saying that he was fired. Reconciling the religious precepts of observant Muslims with the secular norms in the European workplace has long been a sensitive subject. France’s strict legal separation of religious and civic life — a legacy of the French Revolution known as laïcité — formally discourages, and in some situations expressly bans, public religious expression. It is a brand of secularism that coexists uneasily with Islamic traditions, making workplace negotiations about religious practice particularly difficult and prone to misunderstandings.
The issues have become thornier after the latest wave of terrorist activity, including the November attacks in Paris that left 130 dead. With much of the region on edge, the French government has set a forceful tone, granting sweeping emergency powers to the police and stepping up the scrutiny of mosques, Islamic associations and individuals. The sense of unease is particularly palpable for companies operating in sensitive areas like transportation, security and infrastructure.
Adding to workplace conflicts like the one at Securitas, as well as reports of tensions at other large employers, is that many Muslims have become more assertive in fighting stigmatization on the job. But many managers and union leaders in France report feeling ill equipped to respond to employee demands for things like dedicated prayer rooms or pork-free canteens — let alone to detect and combat genuine radicalization at work.
“Today, we are in a very complicated situation,” said Philippe Humeau, a researcher at InAgora, a consultancy that specializes in religion and the workplace.
While France’s workplace rules around religion are relatively distinct, the broad concerns are playing out globally, as countries confront the rise in terrorist activities. In the United States, questions of workplace safety arose after a radicalized California health department employee killed 14 colleagues in an attack on an office party in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.
“Most companies don’t know much about Islam,” he said. And in the current climate, “we are seeing companies confuse strict religious practice, which is already difficult to accept in France, with radicalization.”
The risk is that companies, in a quest to protect their staff and their clients, unfairly profile certain employees.
Bachir is convinced that he was fired over fears that his religious expression made him a possible security threat. He filed a discrimination complaint against Securitas with French prosecutors, who are reviewing it.
He is one of at least a half-dozen security guards — all bearded Muslim men — who have been let go by Securitas since the November attacks. They are all challenging their dismissals in a French labor court.
Their dismissals followed a similar pattern. In late November, they received the same written warning, copies of which were reviewed by The New York Times. “The face must be close-shaven, goatees, mustaches and beards kept short, trimmed, tidy and maintained,” the warnings stated. Weeks later, they were sent dismissal letters. The letters refer to repeated violations of the dress code, while a few, including Bachir’s letter, also list additional infractions such as unexcused absences and tardiness.
“That beard did not just grow from one day to the next,” said Eric Moutet, a lawyer representing the men. “But suddenly now it’s a problem? Clearly it’s not something about his behavior that has changed but rather it is the way that person is now being viewed.”
Securitas, which provides about 400 security agents to Orly airport under a multiyear contract and an additional 1,000 at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, declined to discuss the specific dismissals, citing the pending litigation. The security company said the beard rules, and the subsequent firings, adhered to the law. As a private company working on behalf of public sector clients like the airport, Securitas said it must conform to France’s strict secularism laws.
“We are confident,” Michel Mathieu, the head of Securitas’s French operations, said, in reference to the decision to fire the Orly guards. The company has not accused the guards of any illegal activities, nor has it presented any evidence that they engaged in radical behavior on the job. But he said that recent events had led Securitas to revisit its approach to all forms of religious practice in the workplace.
What some might view as overt religious profiling, Mr. Mathieu insisted had become a necessity for a company like Securitas, whose mission is to protect against potential dangers that now include Islamic terrorism. The risks, he added, were no longer abstract. Last year, Securitas alerted the French authorities to four security agents who, despite a rigorous vetting process that includes multiple background checks, were found in possession of jihadist propaganda on the job.
“French companies have been touched by the phenomenon of radicalization,” Mr. Mathieu said. “We have to be able to speak about these things.”
In the days after the deadly November attacks, it emerged that one of the gunmen identified in the attack at the Bataclan concert hall had once worked as a bus driver for RATP, the Paris transportation authority. Almost immediately, the French media questioned whether more radical Islamists might be lurking among the RATP’s staff. Some labor union leaders complained that managers, fearful of complaints from Muslim employees, had long tolerated religious behavior on the job that was explicitly prohibited by the company’s own policies.
The RATP chief executive, Elisabeth Borne, swiftly dismissed the speculation as overblown and warned against “conflating” religious practice with extremism. But the company also quietly acknowledged that workplace conflicts linked to religious behavior, albeit still “very marginal” in number, had become a concern in recent years.
“The RATP cannot escape the difficulties confronted by French society,” the company said in a statement. “We don’t fire them, because that could be a powerful incitement to radicalization,” Mr. Pepy said.
Analysts said most companies were able to deal with more common employee requests — including the ability to wear head scarves or arrange schedules and break times to allow for prayers and other observances — and that those actions could be easily distinguished from proselytizing or abrupt changes in behavior that could be a sign of radicalization.
But those lines aren’t always discernible and some people, like the job coach Mr. Trolliet, worry that the current environment of fear could quickly erode employers’ openness to religious accommodation in general.
“As always,” he said, “there are groups that have a hidden agenda, who will use the leverage of well-meaning people.” Refusing to Shake Hands
Because they work for a public entity, employees of the RATP, the Paris transport authority, are expressly prohibited from “any behavior or wearing of conspicuous signs that could reveal an affiliation with any religion or philosophy whatsoever.” Violations of this rule are meant to be subject to disciplinary action, including potential termination.
So when Christophe Salmon, a delegate for CFDT, a leading French labor union, started receiving complaints about a group of male bus drivers who were refusing to address female colleagues or shake their hands, he raised the alarm. At certain bus depots, he said, some male employees wouldn’t take the wheel of a vehicle that had been previously driven by a woman.
Rather than report the behavior to the authority’s human resource managers, Mr. Salmon said that supervisors simply adjusted the drivers’ schedules and routes to avoid handoffs between women and men. In one case, Mr. Salmon said, a woman who lived within walking distance of her depot asked to be transferred to a job across town rather than stay and continue to endure the harassment.
Some of the drivers were ultimately reprimanded, but none were fired, an outcome that Mr. Salmon said amounted to “a kind of trivialization” of such behavior. The authority responded by distributing a 34-page handbook in 2013 that defines the principles of religious neutrality and diversity to managers and describes a number of common workplace situations. However, Mr. Salmon said, few supervisors received formal practical guidance on how to address conflicts when they arose.
“These guys have been very well trained to drive buses and trains, but they know nothing about laïcité,” Mr. Salmon said, referring to the supervisors. “All they have is a bunch of guidelines on paper.”
In an emailed statement, the Paris transport authority said it took questions of religious conflict “seriously,” although it declined to discuss specific cases. The company recently announced the creation of a new working group, reporting to the chief executive, that was intended to provide “concrete support to front-line managers” on questions of religious behavior. In addition, plans are in the works to develop a dedicated peer-support network, giving staff members a resource for informal advice when issues arise.
Uncertain about the true security threats to their operations and staff, many employers are now struggling to strike an appropriate balance between vigilance and protection of the rights of their employees.
“That is the real trap for employers,” said Lionel Honoré, director of the Observatory of Workplace Religious Practice.
Paradoxically, he said, it is often the employees most open to dialogue who are the first to be pressed to adapt their religious practices, while more troubling behavior is sometimes allowed to continue unchallenged for fear of escalating the problem.
“Radical people make some managers nervous, and so they leave them alone,” Mr. Honoré said.
At Securitas, Mr. Mathieu conceded that the company’s crackdown on beards and other forms of religious expression had raised concerns among staff members, and not only among Muslims. He said that the company was sensitive to the risk of making “errors of good faith” about religious behavior on the job.
“People can confuse these things, either voluntarily or involuntarily,” Mr. Mathieu said. “I always want to make things as transparent as possible.”
Mr. Moutet, the lawyer for the Securitas guards, said that the number of dismissed Muslim workers who had contacted him to bring religious discrimination suits had been rising over the last year. That increase, he feared, was in parallel with the tougher line against terrorism being taken by the French authorities.
“It seems that there are some companies that are taking advantage of the mood of panic to try to clean house and sweep out certain people that they simply don’t like,” Mr. Moutet said.
Bachir, the former Orly guard whose beard cost him his job, worries that cases like his will become more common. He still maintains a valid security guard’s license, which is granted only after an extensive police background check. But Bachir, who is married and is a father, said he was considering a new line of work or even going into business for himself.
“Today in France, laïcité only has one meaning, and it is anti-Islam,” he said. “It has become so widespread. And now, yes, it has infected the workplace.” Sunday, 21 February 2016