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16 April 2013updated 11 Apr 2014 11:57am

“No blacks or Arabs” for Israeli PM’s visit: the latest example of French state-sanctioned discrimination

Hollande's silence on the alleged discrimination against black and Arab employees is indicative of the president's recent decision to chase popularity by playing to the centre-right.

By Myriam Francois

France’s latest scandal involving a case of alleged discrimination against black and Arab employees at state-owned rail company, the SNCF, indicates just how little the climate has improved for Muslims under Francois Hollande’s Socialist government.

Last month, ahead of a state visit by Israeli president Shimon Peres to discuss the Middle East peace process, the SNCF issued a request for its baggage-handling subsidiary Itiremia to provide three porters to the Israeli delegation. Zachée Lapée, Itiremia’s staff representative says he received instructions that there be “no blacks or Arabs” among them, because “no Muslim employees should greet the Israeli head of state.” Secular restrictions do not allow for the identification of people’s religion, but it was assumed “black or Arab” employees might be Muslim. The director of Itiremia has confirmed that “the criteria of selection to welcome M. Peres was based on the appearance of workers.” The SUD-Rail transport union has called for the SNCF to publicly condemn the actions and denounced the discriminatory selection of workers.

An internal investigation is currently underway by the CHSCT, a committee charged with evaluating working conditions in France, to determine who was responsible. According to a statement by Sud-Rail, upon questioning from employees concerning the directives, a manager informed the staff the measures reflected “security concerns” and that the instructions were coming from “protocol from Gare du Nord, then from the Israeli embassy, and then from the Ministry of Interior and the Israeli embassy.” The Israeli embassy has categorically denied making such a request, indicating that the very purpose of Shimon Peres’ arrival in Paris was dialogue with Muslim counterparts. Meanwhile Laurent Trevisani, the SNCF’s strategic director says she did not receive such a request from the Israeli President’s entourage, nor from the French ministry of foreign affairs, and denies issuing the request.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, issues of institutional racism have long plagued French society. In 2009, the French equality body, the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE), received 259 complaints of discrimination on the ground of religion or belief, most of which involved Muslims, typically in education, private employment and access to public services, findings later corroborated by a 2010 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).

Just this month, Air France was found guilty of discrimination and ordered to pay €10,000 fine to Horia Ankour, a student nurse who was escorted off a plane heading to Tel Aviv on the basis that she was “not Jewish”. In another controversial case earlier this month, 15 year old student Sirine Ben Yahiaten was permanently excluded from her secondary school  for wearing a combination of a headband, a few centimetres wide, and a long skirt, deemed to be ‘religious’ in character. The decision was validated by the French Council of State, despite concerns expressed by an administrative tribunal that the exclusion was negatively affecting the young woman’s education. Critiques of the decision point to the fact that many young girls wear headbands and bandanas in tribute to pop stars and fashion icons but that such style choices are only deemed problematic when worn by Muslim women.

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Despite some hopes that a socialist government would herald a less divisive atmosphere than that fostered by Sarkozy, who’d played into Far-right repertoire, very little seems to have improved for French Muslims since Hollande’s victory in May. According to one poll, 93 per cent of French Muslims voted for the Socialist candidate, but many have been left disappointed.

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Fateh Kimouche, of Muslim website believes the recent controversy fits within a broader atmosphere in which Muslims are dealt with through a security approach, fostered by minister of interior, Manuel Valls, whose portfolio includes managing religious groups.  Valls is a controversial figure who was caught on camera in June 2009 bemoaning the lack of “blancos” or “whites” in the neighbourhood of Evry where he was then mayor, and who forced the closure of a local halal shop, claiming that the refusal to stock alcohol or pork reflected evidence of “communalism”. Addressing an audience of police officers last year, he described working class neighbourhoods as a breeding ground for the “enemy within”, while in February, he announced that Muslim women’s headscarves “will remain for me and for the Republic, a central struggle.” The statement has been deemed all the more discriminatory given his public declaration that French Jews “can wear their kippa with pride”.

More recently, Valls expressed his “regret” at a ruling by France’s Court of Cassation which overturned the dismissal of Muslim nursery nurse, Fatima Afif for wearing a headscarf while working at a Paris crèche in 2008. The case has been viewed as particularly significant in light of the employment discrimination experienced by Muslim women who wear a headscarf. A 2012 report by Amnesty international found that Muslim women are routinely “denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf.”

The controversy involving the SNCF has emerged in the same week that the site of a new mosque in Seine-et-Marne was vandalised with nazi tags and a pig’s head, while two other mosques were also defaced in the region in early February. According to the Islamophobia Observatory, 201 anti-Muslim actions were reported in 2012, representing a 28 per cent increase compared with 2011. This latest evidence that institutional racism is rife within one of France’s best known state-run companies, will do little to appease tensions.

Faced with a record low in popularity, corruption scandals and accusations of political ineptitude, Hollande has chosen to play to centre-right concerns lately, in order to regain public approval. His current silence concerning the SNCF saga is testimony to his unwillingness to confront widespread anti-Muslim sentiment and evidence he’s reneging on yet another political promise – that of being a “president for all.”