A French creche assistant who was famously fired for refusing to remove her Islamic head-scarf had her dismissal annulled by France’s highest appeals court on Tuesday. The court judged the sacking was “religious discrimination”.
Fatima Afif, a nursery assistant sacked in 2008 by the ‘Baby Loup’ creche for refusing to remove her Muslim headscarf at work, won an appeal against her dismissal on Tuesday.
In delivering their verdict judges at Paris’s ‘Cour de cassation’ – France’s highest appeals court – said her firing “constituted discrimination based on religious convictions and must be declared invalid.”
The privately-run daycare centre in the Yvelines suburb of Paris has rules requiring its staff to maintain “philosophical, political and denominational neutrality” at work.
However, the court found on Tuesday that because ‘Baby Loup’ is a private establishment, and it was not an “urgent professional necessity” that Afif remove her veil, France’s “principle of secularism does not apply.”
The principle cannot be invoked to deny “employees of private companies that do not perform a public service… the protections guaranteed them under the workcode,” the appeals court ruled.
The nursery was also ordered to pay €2,500 in compensation to their former employee, according to Le Parisien newspaper.
The case however is not yet concluded and will be re-heard before a lower court of appeal in Paris at a later date.
Michel Henry, a lawyer for Afif had previously argued that the crèche’s internal rules should be trumped by “the exercise of a fundamental freedom, the freedom of religion,” he was quoted as saying by French television TF1 on Tuesday.
Before Tuesday’s ruling, Afif had had her appeal against the dismissal rejected on two occasions. In 2010 a labour relations board found that her sacking was justified by “blatant and repeated insubordination.” An appeals court in 2011 agreed, stating that young children in the crèche “should not be confronted by ostentatious displays of religious affiliation.”
The wearing of religious symbols or clothing in public (state-run) schools has been illegal in France since 2004.
Although ‘Baby Loup’ is a private establishment, and despite having an overwhelmingly Muslim clientele, one of its lawyers, Richard Malka, had argued it has the right to deem itself a “secular business”. He believes Afif’s religious freedom should not be considered more important than the culture of the crèche.
Since the case emerged in 2008, it has attracted the attention of both religious freedom advocates, and defenders of France’s tradition of strict secularism (known as ‘laïcité’), such as current Interior Minister and Socialist deputy Manuel Valls, who had publicly supported the crèche.
On Tuesday Valls told France’s National Assembly he regretted the court’s ruling, claiming that it “calls into doubt the principle of secularism,” according to TF1.
Update: See also “Veil verdict: ‘A dark day for secularism in France'”, The Local, 20 March 2013