MARSEILLES, FRANCE // France's uneasy relationship with its sizeable Muslim minority, Europe's largest, has been highlighted by the suspension of four young summer camp monitors accused of endangering children in their care by observing Ramadan.
The local council employing them said a "lack of nutrition and hydration" impaired the assistants' ability to ensure the smooth and safe running of the camp.
Colonies de vacancies, as the camps are known, were devised by the Swiss in the 19th century and have become a French institution, often providing subsidised breaks in the countryside, mountain or seaside resorts for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Mohand Yanat, a Parisian lawyer acting for the monitors, said they would go to court to defend their rights, asking: "How can you prejudge someone's abilities on the basis of how their religious practices?"
The case was brought to light by Bondy Blog, a website with "citizen journalists" drawn predominantly from Africans and Maghrebins living in Paris's immigrant-dominated suburbs.
Identified only as Samir, Moussa, Nassim and Ali, the monitors had been recruited by the Communist-run council of Gennevilliers, on Paris's north-western fringe. They were in charge of a group of Gennevilliers children at a camp in Landes, south-western France.
Nassim told the site: "There was a visit from an official responsible for youth holiday centres. He satisfied himself all was running smoothly, which it was, before joining us at the lunch table, where he remarked that neither I nor Moussa was eating."
Summoned by the official later, they were told that a clause of their contracts obliged them to eat and drink since failure to do so risked the children's safety
When Nassim protested that this was discriminatory and that he would never put the children in danger, the official insisted he would have acted no differently had the monitor been a woman following a diet. That evening he announced that the monitors would be dismissed and ordered them to leave the premises the next morning.
When they stood their ground, this was altered to suspension on full pay for the remainder of their contracts. The same action was applied to the other two, including Samir, the assistant director of the camp who, when challenged by his immediate superior on his intentions, said it was a personal matter his boss had no right to raise.
The Gennevilliers council said in a statement that the four had failed to comply with the obligations of their contract and could have jeopardised "the physical safety of children for whom they were responsible".
"This lack of nutrition and hydration could have led to them no longer being in full possession of the means required to ensure smooth and safe activities or the physical safety of children in their care."
Nicole Varet, an aide to the mayor, said the concerns reflected a case three years ago when a child was seriously hurt in an accident resulting from a fasting camp employee becoming ill while driving.
Samir said being paid up to the end of his contract date was unimportant. "I wanted to stay until the end of summer camp," he said. "It was all running to perfection and it is just not right to be suspended for this reason."
Mr Yanat, the monitors' lawyer, said the council had no right to interpret conformity with French principles of secularism as denying them the freedom to practice their faith. "The analogy of the woman on a diet is hypocritical because every day at summer camps, there are monitors on diets or children who refuse broccoli or some other food and nothing is done about it."
He added that there was no scientific evidence to show fasting during Ramadan, observed in France between 5am and 9.30pm, stopped people performing their professional duties. "You need only to look at the Olympic Games where Muslim athletes are competing at the highest level despite also observing Ramadan," said Mr Yanat, though Muslim participants in London have given conflicting accounts of the effects of fasting and whether - or, in some cases, when - they would abstain.