A long-standing legal row over France’s laws banning the wearing of religious symbols in public places takes another turn Thursday as the Paris appeals court considers the case of a childcare worker sacked for wearing a headscarf.
In 2008, Fatima Afif was fired from her job at the private Baby-Loup nursery school in Paris suburb Chanteloup-les-Vignes after she refused to remove her veil while at work.
In April 2013, after years of legal wrangles and appeals, the Court of Cassation (France’s highest court) ruled that Afif was unfairly fired and was a victim of “religious discrimination”, arguing that because Baby-Loup was a private institution, France’s strict secularism rules did not apply. It also ordered the nursery school to pay Afif a fine of 2,500 euros.
The decision overturned a ruling by an employment tribunal in 2010 court ruling – upheld in appeals the following year – that found Baby-Loup had acted legally when it fired Afif in December 2008 on the grounds of serious misconduct.
France’s chief prosecutor François Falletti said on Monday that he considered the nursery school “within its rights to enforce religious neutrality”.
Afif’s lawyer Michel Henry responded that the sole purpose of the new trial, which will review all aspects of the case, was to “restore an abused truth”.
“Mrs Afif has been misrepresented as a woman seeking to impose her Islamic beliefs on other people,” he said. “The truth is that it is the nursery manager Natalia Baleato who has become radicalised, who sees herself as some kind of Joan of Arc figure leading the fight against the veil in order to exacerbate racial tensions.”
Counsel for the nursery Richard Malka said he was confident the appeals court would overturn the April ruling, and that it would become “a milestone in the history of secularism” in France, making the Baby-Loup nursery a “national symbol”.
The April 2013 ruling that vindicated Afif drew an avalanche of criticism from supporters of France’s hallowed tradition of strict secularism, while French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he was “disappointed” with the court’s decision.