Don’t Arrest the Mother Superior.

So, what is your employer’s stance on religion in the workplace ?  Do employees get time off work to pray ? Is there a prayer room at your work ? How does your boss feel about religious garb ? Is a discreet crucifix on a chain acceptable but an Islamic veil out of the question ?

I only ask this question because in récent days in France the government sponsored « Observatoire de la Laicité » have published a guide for employers about religion in the work place.

There are perhaps few western countries that would have a national arbiter on a relgious policy. This is France though – good old Republican and secular France and we have  the « Observatoire de la Laicité » or best translation « National Council for Secular Affairs NCSA » (That sounds so Orwellian) –  A national advisory body on religious questions.

In France, religion has no place in public life, unlike in the USA where God sems to be omniprésent, but that’s what you get when your Republic is set up by a set of politically motivated revolutionaries as opposed to those fleeing religious persecution in their homeland – Robespierre was quite definitely not a Pilgrim father, though he was a bit puritanical – I think most revolutionaries are.

At this juncture, just to tell you that the French State and the French Church consummed their accrimonious divorce in 1905 and since then France has been strictly secular. No religion in public life. How does this translate ? Well as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of WW1, whilst in Britain, religious leaders will certainly be invited to rememberance cérémonies. In France you won’t see a dog collar, cassock, mitre or headscarf anywhere at official cérémonies. AND you’ll never hear the French President saying « God bless France » (though in our current crappy state of affairs some divine d guidance or intervention might be useful)

Since 2010, under French law, religious garb and trappings of « an ostentatious and visible nature » have been banned in French public life. Basically it means that you can’t wear burqas, niqabs, kipas, turbans, crucifixes and such like if you are in the pay of the French government. Not even if you are working far away from the public eye can you wear religious garb. The problem it would seem comes in the private sector – hence the reason for these new guidlines from the NCSA.

So what can you and can you not wear as a sign of your faith in a god.

Well let’s take a British scenario (from personal experience)

It is just another day at the local supermarket. Shoppers patiently lined up at the till waiting to pay. The girl on the checkout is wearing a long Islamic headscarf – well I presume it is a headscarf, though the entire garment shrouds almost allof her upper body. Her face though is visible. The  girl calmly scans the groceries of the lady in front, then suddenly she stops and rings a bell to call her superviser. The reason for the cashier’s pause – a bottle of wine – her religion forbids her from even touching the bottle. No matter, the supervisor scans it for the girl whilst asking the lady shopper if she as anymore « offending » articles that may contain alcohol or pork. The lady shopper hands over a bottle of gin, a pack of sliced ham and a pork roast from her trolley. The supervisor then scans these for the cashier befpre wlking off calmly as if nothing has happened. Indeed, none of the other shoppers seem to react at what for me is a tantamount to a scene fom the Twilight Zone – because this wouldn’t happen in France.  SO, in the French scenario, the supermarket is not a public sector employer BUT, the cashier is in a very visible positon that is open to all members of the public – public place Vs private company.

The new secular guide for employers would reccomend that the cashier not wear a religious headscarf. Indeed under the 2010 law on religious garb, she would be banned from wearing one because of the public nature of where she works. However, were she working in a back office, far from public view it would be at the employer’s discrétion if he allowed her or not to wear the headscarf. Though were the girl to leave the back office and head into the shop in a professional capacity, she would have to remove her headscarf.  She would of course be allowed to wear it in the shop once she had left work and if she chose to shop where she worked.  Ah, it’s all very confusing.

It boils down to this. Those employees working in prominent public postions in privât companies cannot wear visible relgious garb. Customers though who enter the premises are allowed to « dress up » Well, if they couldn’t, they would probably never leave the house.

The effect of what people call the anti-burqa law has frankly been an increase of women covering up more for provocation than religious reasons. It seems strange that to be controversial in France you need to cover up – whilst in Russia, the likes of Pussy Riot and others of a Femen tendancy are busy uncovering.

So, this new set of secular guidelines. Well having perused the book. It is a refreshing dose of common sensé in a country, where, by tradition of central governemnt can’t understand, cope withn control or tax a new phenomenon, they legislate it out of existance. Such is the French way. When you have a problem you just pass a new law.

In conclusion. Well, the anti burqa law is inapplicable. Covering up for religious reasons in a public pace can earn the « culprit » a 150 Euro fine. But can you seriously arrest a burqa  wearing lady in the street ? You might as well arest the Mother Superior as she nips out to buy some more communion wine.

Just to say though, that the Buqa law is taking a bashing. In récent government rantings  there has been a lot said about the value of multiculturalism – everyone to his own culture and the sartorial curiosities that go with it, but you can’t wear religious garb. Mulitcuralism is inapplicable under the French Republican model. So, I might just try wearing a bowler hat to work tomorrow.