The backlash against Muslims in France demanding religious rights in the public sphere has also hit Jews, who feel that their own, similar requests are being treated increasingly negatively.
“Things have got worse since more and more Muslims started pushing demands, sometimes with political motives. Now we’re compared to assertive pushy militants and our own requests are denied outright,” said Marc Djebali, vice president of the Jewish community of Sarcelles, a suburb north of Paris. “Now officials tell me: ‘we can’t accept this, this is a secular state’.”
Sarcelles is the home of one of France’s largest and more assertive Jewish communities. In a way it pioneered the controversial trend of French minorities lobbying the secular government for religious rights, known as communautarisme — community activism.
But over the past few years it has been lagging behind the local Muslim community, which has been better able to get its traditions recognised in schools and work places.
“Ten years ago, kosher meals were offered to kids in our neighbourhood school. Today, they can only get halal,” said Mr Djebali. “Principals tell me halal is normal but kosher is just too complicated.”
The feeling that the community was being put at a disadvantage by the Muslim requests became stronger this summer, after comments by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked a public debate over whether the Muslim burka should be banned. Calls to similarly examine Jewish clothing soon followed.
“Jewish men who wear hats and ringlets are just like Muslim women with their burka. They’re proselytising,” said Yves Prat, head of the Europe Secularity organisation. “Maybe this clothing should be banned from all public places, like smoking.”
Although France defines itself as secular and in 2004 its parliament adopted a law banning religious clothing — such as veils and skullcaps — in public schools, Islam has made its way into French tradition and society.
Dozens of schools are now offering halal meals; one school in Paris even offers halal meals exclusively. Meanwhile, a number of pools have arranged separated bathing hours for women, a trend which began in the Jewish community of Strasbourg, and later in Sarcelles, where, for the past 15 years, women have also had a female lifeguard.
In university, students still have to attend exams on Saturdays and holidays. This is a regular sticking point and every year France’s chief rabbi tries to negotiate with universities to find suitable dates.
In one bright spot, both Jewish and Muslim holidays are increasingly respected in the office, according to a study by the professional association IMS-Entreprendre.
Ramadan is the first non-Christian holiday to be officially recognised in French companies. Many offices have adjusted their schedules in the
afternoons to accommodate tired fasters, and others have set up prayer rooms where fasters can rest. Carmaker Renault was one of the first to reorganise its timetable for Muslim employees.
But IMS-Entreprendre considers other demands, such as leaving early on Friday night, “excessive”.
“Everything depends on the number of people pushing for change,” Dounia Bouzar, the author of What’s Allah’s place at the office?, told the AFP. “If 80 per cent of a company’s employees are Muslim, they’ll make the rules.”