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Union chief says Air France has a 'fundamentalist' problem

© Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | Air France employees during a strike at the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport on Octobre 5, 2015

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2015-12-17

Is Air France becoming a hotbed of religious fundamentalism, as the head of one of the company's unions suggested in recent comments? Some employees have also reported a rise in sectarian attitudes at the airline.

Air France employee Sophie* clearly remembers the 2011 halal "scandal" at the French capital's Charles de Gaulle airport.

“The General Workers Union (CGT) wanted to introduce halal meat in the staff cafeteria. There were petitions, then security was increased… It went very badly,” said Sophie, who has worked at France’s largest airport for 10 years.

The controversy prompted several unions to step in, citing what they saw as rising sectarianism at the company. There have been several accounts in the press about employees who refused, for example, to shake hands with or speak to women, or who became angry with Muslims who chose not to observe Ramadan.

The CGT is once again mobilising against what its chief has called “Islamic fundamentalists”. In an interview on December 2, Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of Air France’s CGT union, revealed that the corporation had “cleaned out” its ranks: the organisation identified nearly 500 of its 2,000 members as “fundamentalists” and then excluded them from the union.

"We lost 500 union members due to this matter," Martinez told France Info. “They are not all radical. When we talk about matters of this kind, we’re talking about Islamic fundamentalists, not the religion, per se.”

But negotiations have become more difficult even between the union itself and some of its members. A “handful of individuals” have seriously campaigned for their personal interests at the CGT, said Sophie.

“It’s a small group but a strong one nonetheless, one that sets its own rules,” she said. She added that, paradoxically, “questionable” behaviour is both increasingly present and “less and less visible”.

“The problem is that, for years, we have begun to accept, or normalise, such behaviour here.”

‘Worrisome behaviour’

Augustin de Romanet, the CEO of the Paris Airports association (Aéroports de Paris, which manages Orly and Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airports), agrees that certain individuals have exhibited what he called “worrisome behaviour”.

Not respecting the company's code on religious neutrality in the workplace could adversely affect the corporate environment or even employee relations, and this is what worries the bosses.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, Air France’s management declined to comment on the issue, instead citing an official press release that outlines its ethics policy. The company adheres to “a management structure in which personal opinions align with uncompromised professional objectives”, the statement said.

But Sophie believes the company leadership is waffling, even stonewalling.

“Clearly there’s a downward spiral taking place and everyone knows it,” she said. “In general, things go very well here. Air France is a diverse, multicultural company. But of course there will always be a handful of individuals who pose a problem, a minority who make life difficult for other employees, including Muslims.”

Air France is not the only company to see religion creeping into the workplace. According to a study conducted last April by the Observatory of Religion in the Workplace and the Randstad Institute, 23% of managers in France say they regularly confront religious issues at work, compared with around half that – 12% – in 2014.

Another 6% said that religion had led to conflict in the workplace, up from 3% last year, Le Figaro reported.

'No religious radicalisation at Air France'

Ronald Noirot, secretary general of the CFE CGC, Air France’s new main trade union, acknowledges that there have been issues arising from religion at the company but cautions against exaggerating the problem.

“In four years, out of 60,000 employees at the company, we have had fewer than 10 problem cases,” he explained to FRANCE 24. “Again, these are marginal cases. I can’t say there is a problem with fundamentalism at the company. In truth, we are facing a problem of sectarianism – and that’s different.”

The union denounced its leader's comments earlier this month. In a press release, the CGT said: “Based on imprecise evidence and under the pressure of questions from journalists, [Martinez] used two words – ‘radical’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ – that do not correspond with the reality of our union.”

Mehdi Kemoune, assistant secretary general of the union, put it to FRANCE 24 even more directly: “There is no form of religious radicalisation at Air France.”

So why were 500 members dismissed from the union if not for being "fundamentalists", as Martinez had said? The CGT said it was for corruption.

According to a recent press release, certain “union bosses of the CGT division at Roissy Escales (Charles de Gaulle airport)” have admitted that they were guilty of “favouritism”.

So did Martinez exaggerate the "fundamentalist" problem at Air France?

“He didn't make anything up,” said Sophie. “The problem is, the rest of us in the company do not say such things. The management and the unions always think first about the company image. Since we work with planes, the subject is sensitive.”

Romanet acknowledged on December 13 that the Paris Airports association had deactivated 70 of their 86,000 employee access cards since January, mainly for reasons linked to religious radicalisation.

These cards, referred to as “red cards”, give employees entry into secure, “reserved” areas such as the tarmac, the baggage zone, Duty-Free shops and certain public spaces, among others.

“Essentially, we have deactivated access cards after incidents involving flights and aggression. There simply aren’t enough cases to declare that there is a debate [in our industry] concerning religious radicalisation,” said the Paris Airports press office. “After all, we are talking about only 70 out of 86,000 access cards.”

The association added that it should not serve as the justification for either paranoia or discriminatory practices.

And examples of discrimination do exist within the airport industry. Two security agents at Orly airport south of Paris were expelled by the Securitas company on December 16, allegedly because they had beards.

“Certain companies are beginning to demonstrate problematic behavior,” the men’s lawyer told AFP, adding that he was less worried about radicalisation within companies than the radicalisation "of" companies.

* Name has been changed.

Date created : 2015-12-17

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