Black and North African railway workers were banned from working at Paris’s Gare du Nord when the President of Israel visited France over fears they might be Muslim, it has emerged.
The alleged discrimination took place as Shimon Peres arrived at the station, the hub for high-speed trains, on March 8, to discuss the Middle East peace process.
It is now the subject of an official complaint by the SUD-Rail transport union which says everything was done to ensure there were “no Muslim employees to welcome the Head of the State of Israel”.
Mr Peres and a delegation of other senior Israelis arrived on a morning train from Belgium, and were greeted by staff from SNCF, France’s national railway, and their baggage-handling subsidiary, ITIREMIA.
The previous day however, a site manager told all workers at the station about the ban on black staff, and those of North African descent, because they might be Muslim.
Secular France does not officially recognise anybody’s religion, but it was assumed by management that anyone from a “black or Arab” background might be Muslim – an assumption “based on the appearance of the workers”, according to a SUD-Rail statement.
The SUD-Rail statement called on SNCF to publicly condemn the incident as “unacceptable”.
Gare du Nord has a large number of workers from an ethnic minority in its workforce, many of whom live in the suburbs of Paris.
SNCF initially blamed the discrimination on “security protocol” advised by the French Interior Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in Paris, but this has been emphatically denied by both.
Instead, the order came from SNCF management, with a spokesman for the state-run company pledging “a full investigation”.
The row is particularly embarrassing for SNCF because of the part it played in the Holocaust during the Second World War.
In 2011 the organisation made its first formal public apology to Holocaust victims, many of whom had been entrained to death camps in Germany on lines which ran out of Gare du Nord.
France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, with up to six million living in the country.