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Young Muslim women chat at an ‘Integration Week’ event organized at the Catholic University of Lyon in Lyon, France.

As demand for secularism grows in France, believers push back at work

France has been stepping up its enforced secularism amid fears of Muslim immigration and terrorism, but that seems to be stirring more expression of religion in the workplace.

France has turned increasingly hostile in recent years to outward displays of religion, particularly those associated with Islam. The burqa was banned nationally, and French politicians controversially tried to keep the “burkini” off many town beaches this summer.

The hard line might make it seem as if religious symbols are on their way out. Still, despite a growing hostility, the visibility of religion may actually be on the rise in France.

Laïcité, or French secularism, has always been interpreted by some as a tool to suppress the public expression of individual faith. Even a century ago, when it first became law, some leaders used laïcité as an argument to ban Roman Catholic robes from the streets of the French Republic.

The garments were ultimately allowed, but the debate did not end. Today, questions over displays of faith are even shriller – but in some ways less controversial – than they were then. After the burkini was banned by some mayors in the name of laïcité, for example, the majority of the French approved the ban.

Yet according to a recent annual study by the Observatory for Religion in the Workplace and the Randstad Institute, 65 percent of respondents say religion has been more present at work, up from 50 percent last year. Those who work with Muslim women say that far more don the headscarf than they did in 2004, when it, along with other religious symbols, was barred from schools. Jewish leaders say the more strictly observant within their community are complaining that students must sit for university exams on Saturdays, the Shabbat. And in a nation in which atheism is growing, political leaders on the far right are invoking their Christian heritage in their appeals to supporters.

What may sometimes appear to be secularism on the march belies a deeper, more multifaceted debate over where and how religiosity is expressed in French society. As Islam gets conflated with terrorism and religion generally has gotten tied up in identity politics, France is struggling to balance its secularly driven commitment to laïcité with increasing determination among the country’s religious communities to express their faith in public.

“The French have become less tolerant about the expression of religion in shared or common space, in the street, on the beaches, in the public square,” says Jean-Paul Willaime, an expert on laïcité and religion at the EPHE, or Practical School of Higher Studies. “It makes religious groups, whether Catholic or Protestants, Jews or Muslims, react ... and want to further express their identity in public places.”

Religious pushback

Laïcité has put France at the vanguard of Europe’s broader debates over displaying religious symbols and dress in public. Though the country was an outlier when it banned overt religious symbols in schools and, in 2010, burqas in public, today it is no longer alone. Europe’s brew of right-wing politics and the clear threat of terrorism by Muslim radicals have spurred Germany and others to debate their own bans on veils that fully cover the face.

The actual law on laïcité from 1905 does not apply to the private sphere. But the societal pressure it produces is complicating the place of religious symbols in the business sphere. Anaïs Leleux, a diversity trainer with Convivencia Conseil, a company in Paris that advises other companies on interfaith conflict, says employees do not understand where faith belongs at work. “People think laïcité means you cannot bring your practices to work, which is not true,” she says.

For some people, the perception that they need to suppress their identity has inflamed passions. That is especially the case with Muslims, who have been at the center of the debate in a nation shaken by terrorists who have killed more than 230 people in the name of religion. Many Muslims view demands for laïcité as Islamophobia and a type of forced assimilation that does not allow space for religious diversity.

As presidential elections near, identity politics has worsened, with minorities as the target. Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative former French president running again for the top job, said this fall: “As soon as you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls.”

“This anti-Islamic climate means that certain Muslims find the treatment toward them to be unfair, and thus they want to add to their visibility,” says Valentine Zuber, a historian and specialist on laïcité. “Some are even using the situation to assert themselves more or be more provocative in their approach.”

Agnès de Féo, a filmmaker and sociologist in Paris, says that veils are far more common today than they were prior to the ban on religious symbols in schools. She calls it a “reversal of stigmas.”

Ms. de Féo says she sees more religion in public generally and believes it comes down to a fight for an identity that is perceived to be under threat. “It is not just Muslims. You can see Christians wearing crosses around their necks, too,” she says.

Samuel Grzybowski, cofounder of Convivencia Conseil, says that religion is becoming a more constant feature in the workplace. Employees ask for time off for religious holidays, for prayer spaces, or for halal options in the office lunchroom. Faith symbols are increasingly in evidence.

Mr. Grzybowski advises managers to embrace it. “It’s better to accept that religious factors exist than ignore them, and employers need to consider the well-being of their employees,” he says.

Not ‘cool’ to be religious

Lionel Honoré, director of the Observatory for Religion in the Workplace, says he believes that the study showing more visibility of religion at work – which included all religions but showed disproportionate effects for Islam, as the work calendar and canteen revolve around Christian customs – is in part a generational shift. First-generation immigrants, mostly Muslims, sought to blend into French society. “Today people hesitate less and less to show ... their religious practices at work,” he says.

He calls it the “banalization” of religion at work, and it has created some tensions. They are growing, with 18 percent in the study saying they are annoyed by displays of religion at work, up from 8 percent the previous year.

“Because of the political context we’re in, people are asking for more and more bans that go above and beyond laïcité,” says Ms. Zuber.

France's labor minister, Myriam El Khomri, presented a guide to navigate religious issues in the private workplace Monday, responding to a demand by unions and managers for clarity amid growing signs of religion. The guide, with 39 case scenarios, addresses issues such as discussing religion in the hiring process or how to manage an employee who won't work with a superior because she is a woman.

Many groups, from Jews to conservative Catholics, feel they have to hide their faith. One Muslim engineer, who is originally from Tunisia but who now works in Paris, says he has never told a boss that he is requesting time off for a religious holiday. “The French system of today does not allow people to practice certain religions at work. So Muslims, for example, will accumulate their prayer time from the middle of the day and do those prayers at night when they get home,” he says. “I have female Muslim colleagues who wear the veil but feel obliged to take it off once they enter their place of work. Then, at the end of the day, they put it back on before going back out into the street.”

And it’s not just Muslims. “I used to wear a cross around my neck – for years I wore it,” says Alex, who works for a private insurance company in Paris. “But I started noticing people looking at me in the street or in the Metro. I could feel their eyes on the cross.”

Alex asked that his last name not be used because he has not told his current employer about his religious identification. “It’s not ‘cool’ to be religious in France right now, certainly not for Christians. There is a large part of French society that is not just secular but hostile toward religion.”

Yonathan Arfi, vice president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, says that Jews in France have always embraced secularism, but tensions with respect to religion have made it harder for all religious minorities. He says that he sees less flexibility – for Jews specifically on questions of taking exams on Shabbat – as fears of Muslim assertiveness grow. “If they conclude that things have to be stricter against religion, because people are afraid of Muslim [demands], we will also be indirect victims of that,” he says.

Secularism and religiosity

While the architects of laïcité always had to deal with “ultra secularists,” Mr. Willaime says they would look at the debate today as being in the realm of “science fiction.” He says that the court ruling that the burkini ban violated “fundamental freedoms,” such as “the freedom of conscience and personal liberty,” was an important lesson: The French might not want to see burkinis on their beaches, but they have to accept them. Fear of Islam today has helped reinforce the ultras, he says. “We see that more than a century later, the ultras of laïcité return to a position that is even tougher and that wasn’t accepted by the protagonist of the separation of church and state in 1905.”

Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist who studies racism and the theory of social change, says that laïcité by law works, but France’s real challenge is integration.

The country clearly has faced obstacles, especially the integration of young Muslims. The Paris-based Montaigne Institute released a report recently showing that while almost three-quarters of Muslims conform easily to French law, 28 percent want a hard-line brand of Islam that is incompatible with French society.

Still, Mr. Wieviorka says society is overreacting in its backlash against Islam and religious expression. A Pew Research Center study last spring found that the French have more favorable views overall of Muslims than people in neighboring countries. “If we take the recent burkini situation as an example, there is a moral panic when it comes to questions of religion, [but] things are not as grave as they appear to be,” he says. “I think France needs to calm down and be less afraid.”

Ms. Leleux, the diversity trainer, tries to teach workplaces that displays of religion are not a threat. A prayer room, for example, can be just as beneficial as gym memberships or flexible working hours – bettering the quality of life of employees.

“French people do not know about religion, so they don’t understand it. If managers had basic knowledge about Islam, they would understand why it is important for a co-worker to be able to pray. They would know it is nothing bad,” she says. 

“We are asking ourselves, can we live together?, when the better question should be, do we want to live together?”

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