With EU Court Opinion on Religious Garb, French Presidential Candidates Differ on Contentious Issue

By Fayçal Benhassain | March 16, 2017 | 6:46 PM EDT

Mannequins with headscarves are displayed at the Muslim World Fair outside Paris in 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

Paris (CNSNews.com) – An advisory ruling by the European Union’s highest court on the wearing of religious attire at work comes amid a French presidential campaign that has seen candidates differ on how to balance the country’s secular principles with religious freedom.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), based in Luxembourg, advised this week that private companies could fire employees wearing visible religious items, but only if the companies concerned had internal regulations in place beforehand forbidding the wearing of such items.

The advice followed requests by French and Belgium courts, after cases were heard in the two countries involving two young Muslim workers dismissed for  refusing to remove headscarves at work.

At issue was whether an employer’s blanket ban on the wearing of religious items amounts to discrimination with regard to freedom of religion under an E.U. employment directive.

The CJEU said that “[a]n internal rule … which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.”

However, such a rule should arise from a general and undifferentiated company policy – an expectation that employees dress neutrally, and wear no political, philosophical or religious signs in the workplace.

It would not constitute discrimination only if the policy is required by the employer to achieve a legitimate aim, such as that of projecting a company image of religious neutrality towards customers.

The CJEU left the matter to the French and Belgian courts to rule on substantive issues in the cases concerned. The two countries are historically attached to the principles of secularism and neutrality.

Created in 1952, the CJEU has the role of ensuring that E.U. law is interpreted and applied in the same way in every E.U. member-state.

Although the CJEU ruling is advisory in nature, some religious groups saw it as a negative sign. The Conference of European Rabbis said the court was sending a message implying that faith is no longer welcome.

In France, there is an obligation of neutrality in the workplace. No management or staff member can display his or her religious or political beliefs. They cannot even say if they are part of an union or not.

Minister of Labor Myriam El Khomry introduced a law in 2016 guaranteeing the principle of neutrality in the workplace but the wearing a scarf, veil or any other religious symbol at work still sparks controversies.

A study conducted by The Randstad Institute and the French Religious Observatory in Business, found that in 2016 65 percent of employees said they have observed religious demonstrations in their company, up from 50 percent in 2015.

National Front leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen charges that France and Europe in general have been weak in enforcing the principle of secularism in society. She is in favor of forbidding all visible signs of religion, including in streets and public places.

By contrast François Fillon, the candidate of Les Républicains, has said he would not wish to forbid the wearing of religious symbols in public.

“I reject a France where one could no longer carry a cross in the street, a T-shirt bearing the image of the Pope, a kippa, a turban or a veil,” he said during his center-right party’s primary campaign.

Fillon, an avowed Roman Catholic, also said, “There is no problem of religion in France. There is a problem linked to Islam and extremism.”

Emmanuel Macron, the independent candidate who runs second to Le Pen in opinion polls for next month’s first round of the two-stage presidential elections, has not commented on the CJEU advisory opinion.

But he said earlier during the campaign he was not opposed to women wearing the veil at universities.

Macron is in favor of secularism, but at the same time says religion is not a “problem” in France.

“Islam is not incompatible with the republic,” he added.

Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate who is lagging in the polls, said it was time to stop portraying Islam as a problem.

“We need to return to a calm conception of secularism and avoid mounting French people against each other,” he said.

The case in France involved Asma Bougnaoui, a Muslim design engineer working for a consulting company, Micropole, fired in 2009 after a client complained about the scarf she was wearing while at his premises. Bougnaoui had worn a scarf from the time she was first hired in 2008 and it had not caused a problem before the incident.

In the Belgian case, Samira Achbita was hired in 2003 by surveillance and security group G4S  as a receptionist. At the time she wore no religious garment but three later decided to start wearing a scarf at work.

The company had an internal policy forbidding staff to wear any visible political, religious or philosophical symbol, and she was dismissed in 2006.