A French town hall backtracked on Tuesday after it emerged that four Muslim holiday-camp instructors had been sacked for daytime fasting during Ramadan.
The four, from Paris suburb Gennevilliers, were part of a larger team supervising local children attending a camp in south-western France.
On July 20 [the first day of Ramadan this year, a month when Muslims fast in the day and feast after dark] an inspector noticed that they weren’t eating with their colleagues and the children, a requirement written into their contracts.
The four workers were fired on health and safety grounds, although they were paid in full for the remaining week of their contracts. They plan to contest their dismissal in France’s labour courts.
The clause requiring them to eat and drink regularly was added after an incident in 2009 when a holiday camp worker fell asleep at the wheel of a minibus which crashed, seriously injuring two teenagers.
It reads: “The instructors will make sure that they, as well as the children [in their care] will eat and take fluids, especially at mealtimes, so as to be in full possession of their faculties.”
“We did respect our contracts,” camp-worker Amir told left-leaning daily Libération on Wednesday. “We ate properly and took in enough fluids, once in the morning and then once again in the evening.”
A ‘false debate’
On Tuesday Gennevilliers’ Mayor Jacques Bourgoin said the clause was being dropped for the month of August.
The following day the Communist-run town council justified its initial decision to fire the workers on the basis of an inquiry into the 2009 accident, which
found that the minibus driver had “probably” fallen asleep at the wheel because she hadn’t eaten properly.
But it blasted “scheming politicians and religious interpretations that were totally unnecessary and unwelcome”, which created a scandal based around a “false debate”.
Notably, this included the dubious input of the far-right National Front (FN), which at first hailed the “wise decision” decision to dismiss the workers, saying that those who opposed it were “making a
mockery of the principles of safety and [the French tradition] of secularism.”
When the council backtracked, the anti-immigration FN accused it of “typically left-wing weakness in the face of [Islamic] community activists who are every day eroding what is in the real interest of our country.”
Meanwhile, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) called the town’s actions “an attack on religious freedom” and said it was considering pressing charges.
Gennevilliers council angrily rejected the charge: “We are suffering from unfair criticism, which is far removed from our deeply held anti-racist beliefs and our commitment to fight against discrimination. Irrational commentary has taken the place of discussion and a proper analysis of the facts.”
‘Knee-jerk and a bit clumsy’
One former Gennevilliers holiday-camp worker contacted by FRANCE 24 said he was saddened his local council, “which always puts the safety of children as its highest priority,” had been “hijacked by extreme positions.”
Mehdi Tadjouri, who is of Algerian descent, said he thought the council’s initial reaction “was possibly a bit knee-jerk and clumsy” — but insisted it did not deserve the avalanche of criticism.
“I know the people on the town council and those working for the municipality — they are open with people and they take differences into account,” he said.
He was also philosophical about the difficulty of the council’s position in a country where overt religiosity, especially in front of school children, is officially frowned upon.
“The French attitude to religion is that it is acceptable but should be kept personal,” he said. “When you have to explain to a group of children why you aren’t eating with them, it’s not so easy.”
Tadjourdi, who said he was not a practising Muslim but enjoyed the “special month of Ramadan” because of its strong cultural connotations, was confident Gennevilliers town council would resolve the issue with the suspended workers.
“I’m just sad that the National Front — and also some Islamic groups — have jumped on the bandwagon to cause a scandal and promote their views,” he said.
This article was first published on www.france24/en