PARIS Close to half the staff managers at companies in French urban areas have seen problems arising from religious demands by employees and expect them to increase in future, according to a new study issued on Tuesday.
Listing faith-related problems, the new study said some men refused to take orders from a woman boss or shake hands with women and some refused to handle alcohol or pork products.
Other problems include employees wanting to pray or wear religious garb at work. Some employees try to impose their religious standards on colleagues, such as preventing non-observant Muslims from eating at work during Ramadan.
Smaller towns and rural areas had far fewer problems, the study said. Fewer than five percent of human resources managers in the western region of Brittany reported any difficulties.
The survey, conducted by university researchers in Rennes and the international recruitment agency Randstad, was released as French lawmakers prepare new legislation extending strict public service bans on religious garb at work to some private firms.
President Francois Hollande has also launched an official campaign to ensure the legal separation of church and state is fully respected in France.
"These initial results show the issue of religion at work exists and is not a marginal question," concluded the study, which said 43 percent of staff managers saw faith-related work problems and 41 percent expected to encounter more in future.
Sociologists say most religious demands at work come from the large Muslim minority, with some also from orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. These groups mostly live in or around big cities rather than the traditionally Catholic rural areas.
Many demands concern Muslim women's headscarves, a sensitive issue in France where full-face veils are banned in public and women public servants and girls in state schools are not allowed to cover their hair.
A decision by France's top appeals court in March to reinstate a Muslim woman fired by a private creche for wearing a headscarf revived a debate about religion at work and prompted calls for tighter laws on "laicite," or official secularism.
Several large companies including France Telecom, IBM France, Electricite de France and retailer Casino have drawn up internal guidelines on religion at work in recent years.
France's official secularism bars teachers, postal workers and other civil servants from wearing items such as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or Christian crosses at work.
Many French believe this also applies to the private sector, but companies are free to set their own internal rules. Some firms adapt to employees' requests when possible, while others apply strict bans on anything religious at work.
While politicians from both left and right have been calling for clearer guidelines, the study showed only 12 percent of human resources managers and no more than two percent of middle managers thought stricter laws would solve most problems.
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)