A French court has upheld the controversial sacking of a childcare worker who wore a headscarf to work, as the European Court of Human rights begins to examine another woman’s challenge against France’s Islamic veil ban.
In a case that has gripped France for five years, a Paris appeals court ruled on November 27 that the dismissal of nursery worker Fatima Afif was legal.
Baby-Loup, the crèche employing Fatima Afif in the multicultural Parisian suburb of Chanteloup-les-Vignes, fired her in 2008 after she refused to remove her Islamic headscarf at work.
Secular France bans religious signs in public educational institutions.
But the Court of Cassation ruled last March that privately-owned Baby-Loup had discriminated against its employee on religious grounds.
France’s highest court then sent her case to the Paris appeals court for retrial.
The judge followed the advice of the state prosecutor, who had asked for the sacking to be confirmed in the name of France’s secularism.
Wednesday’s ruling states that the crèche had a “public service mission” and had a right to “impose neutrality on its personnel”.
Fatima Afif’s lawyer said it was “likely” that she would again appeal the ruling. “The court has invented an obligation to protect young children’s freedom of conscience, which does not exist in the law,” Michel Henry said.
The lawyer defending Baby-Loup, Richard Malka, welcomed the ruling because it “reaffirms the strength of secularism”.
A survey of French citizens by the BVA polling firm last month showed that more than 80% of respondents supported her dismissal and called for the ban on religious signs or symbols to be extended to private workplaces.
But a commission created by President François Hollande after his election last year concluded that there was no need to update existing legislation.
Full veil ban challenged in Europe
In a separate case, the European Court sitting in the eastern French city of Strasbourg is scheduled to hear the complaint of a 23-year-old French Muslim woman identified by her initials S.A.S.
According to a summary of the case published by the court, S.A.S. sued the French State on April 11, 2011, when legislation banning people from covering their faces in public places came into force.
The law was passed under former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. His government wrote in the legislative bill that “wearing a full veil is a rejection of the values of the Republic”.
The government also argued that because only women wore full veils, they undermined gender equality.
In her submission, S.A.S. advocated for her right to wear the face-covering burqa or niqab.
She said she wanted to wear such garments in some circumstances, including in public places, and was not under pressure from her family to do so.
“Her aim is not to annoy others but to feel at peace with herself,” she told the court.
S.A.S. argued that the French law violated six articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including freedom of religion and respect for private life.
Echoing the Baby-Loup case, her submission includes two references to “discrimination” because of her choice of clothing in accordance with her religious belief.
The European Court has taken the unusual decision of referring S.A.S.’s case directly to its highest Grand Chamber.