A Paris hospital’s decision to reject an Egyptian trainee doctor because of his beard has been backed by a court, which agreed that patients might have seen it as a religious symbol.
Public hospitals, like other state institutions, must remain secular under France law, and staff are banned from wearing obvious religious symbols such as headscarves.
Nawel Gafsia, a lawyer acting for the doctor, named only as Mohamed A., argued unsuccessfully that the 2-inch beard did not necessarily indicate his religious practices. “My client could have been a hipster,” Ms Gafsia said.
However, the 35-year-old doctor himself “did not deny that his physical appearance was likely to indicate conspicuously a religious conviction,” according to a written judgement by the Versailles appeals court.
Mohamed A. was sent from Menoufia University in northern Egypt for a one-year training course at Saint-Denis hospital in September 2013.
In October, hospital managers told him to trim his beard “so that it could not be seen by staff and users of the public service as an obvious sign of a religious affiliation incompatible with the principles of secularity and neutrality of the public service,” according to court documents.
They repeated the request two weeks later and terminated his training course in February 2014 after he failed to comply.
Ms Gafsia, who was asked to take the case by an anti-discrimination group, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said the doctor managed to transfer to the Paul Brousse hospital where he completed his course and no one objected to his beard.
“It was the personal judgement of the director of Saint-Louis Hospital that posed a problem,” she said, adding that her client would lodge an appeal with France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State.
In 2016 the Council overturned bans on the ‘burkini’, a full-body swimsuit worn by some Muslim women, that had been imposed by about 30 beach resorts on the French Riviera.
It ruled that the bans, which provoked international criticism and ridicule, constituted “a serious and illegal violation of fundamental freedoms.