French businessman Jean-Luc Petithuguenin employs more than 4000 staff, comprising 52 different nationalities, in his recycling business located in Seine-Saint Denis, the immigrant and Muslim heart of Paris.
The politically active CEO of Paprec, which counts 50 factories across France, has come up with a novel way of responding to rising political and religious extremism in France: a charter of secularism (laïcité) in his workplace. The charter, which was signed unanimously by staff and management, says it is the “duty of the employee to remain neutral when it comes to religion.” “Secularism at the company guarantees employees a common and shared reference, favoring cohesion of the company, respect for diversity and collective harmony…the wearing of all signs or clothing by which staff ostensibly manifest religious affiliation is not authorized,” the charter says.
In practice, that means banning visible signs of religious belief—such as the Muslim headscarf, known as the hijab—as well as prayer rooms.
“Since I am a champion of diversity, I asked myself if I should accept the opening of prayer rooms [in the workplace]. At the beginning I said yes, but in the end we will not accept them, in the name of secularism.”
Typically, the French state and public services must remain secular, and therefore neutral, when it comes to religion. This has its roots in the 1789 French revolution and is in accordance with the French constitution, dating from 1958, which begins: “France is a republic, indivisible, secular (laicque), democratic and social.” Private enterprise is outside this law and thus inhabits a grey area, in legal terms, when it comes to the French value of secularism. But it has been obliged to respect freedom of religion, and therefore to negotiate the sensitive question of how “religious” its staff should be at work, amid evolving jurisprudence.
What is so unusual about the Paprec business is the passion of its CEO to protect freedom of religion, as he says, by obliging his workers to leave their faith, and any visible signs of their belief, at the workplace door.
I became interested in this case as a journalist writing often about the surge towards far-right, far-left, and fundamentalist religious movements in France. Prohibitions on religious clothing, symbols, or practices such as street prayer are often seen as targeting—and, in reality, do target—France’s Muslim minority, the biggest population of its kind in Europe (estimated at more than six million, or more than ten percent of the French population). But in the case of Paprec, the secularism charter has been developed by a chief executive who has long been associated with anti-racism movements, and has been applauded for employing so many of vastly different backgrounds. In my article for Global Post, I reported on the current spike in popularity of the extreme-right Front National (FN) political party, led by Marine Le Pen, and on why the Paprec example could be a positive model in a society that is rapidly fragmenting.
This month, France holds key municipal elections and the FN is expected to take control of a clutch of cities across the country, setting the tone for the keenly-watched European Parliamentary elections in May. In Sunday’s first round of the vote, the FN captured its first mayoral post in almost 20 years, and progressed to the final round of the ballot in more than 200 cities.
Le Pen has built her appeal around fierce anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant discourse, dating back to 2010, when she was assuming the leadership of her father’s movement and attacked Muslims praying in French streets as an “occupying force,” comparing them to the Nazis. But not only is the far right profiting from France’s long-term economic and political malaise (unemployment is stuck at around eleven percent and the ruling Socialist Party and President François Hollande are wildly unpopular). Islamists and other religious extremists are growing in influence, as has been seen with the wave of French (and other Europeans) flocking to Syria to fight jihad, or holy war, often inspired by their practice of daily prayers.
The Paprec example, in the view of some French observers, is a middle way that should be applauded and encouraged in a society struggling to balance its long-held republican ideals with the its contemporary reality as a multicultural and multi-confessional country, home to a historic tradition of Catholicism and a growing population of Muslims. Surveys show that the national mood is strongly in favor of widening the legal framework of secularism to include the private sector, and indeed, some of Paprec’s staff members who are Muslim said they were in favor of the secularism charter because it protected them from the pressures of fundamentalism. “I am fine with being a practicing Muslim but a prayer room at the workplace disturbs me,” said Jamal Razzouki, the secretary of the workplace committee at one of Paprec’s sites. “I do not want people to come to me and say I am not a real believer because I practice my faith only in private.”
For Petithuguenin, his campaign aims at widening the definition of laïcité in France. “I apply the model that prevails in the public sphere and I apply it to business,” he said. “I apply the model of the Republic.”