Black and North African workers were excluded from Paris’s main railway station during a visit by Israel’s President amid fears they might be Muslim, it has been alleged.
The decision was reportedly made ahead of Shimon Peres’s arrival in the city on March 8 to discuss the Middle East peace process with President Francois Hollande.
The Telegraph reports Peres and his delegation were greeted at Paris Gare du Nord by non-excluded staff from France’s state-owned railway SNCF, and their baggage handling subsidiary, ITIREMIA.
The allegations are made in an official complaint by the left-wing SUD-Rail transport union, which claims deliberate steps were taken to ensure there were “no Muslim employees to welcome the Head of State of Israel.”
It adds the decision was “based on the appearance of employees”.
SUD-Rail spokesman Monique Dabat told Radio Internationale Française: "The employees noticed that anyone who was black or Arab was excluded from the job and when afterwards they demanded an explanation from the site boss they received the reply that it wasn't because they were black or Arab but there couldn't be any Muslims getting close to Shimon Peres."
According to the SUD-Rail statement, employees were initially told by SNCF the measure was taken following “security demands” from the French Interior Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in Paris, both of which have denied all knowledge of the ban.
The Telegraph says SNCF has since admitted the order came from management, with a spokesman promising “a full investigation”.
The incident is being branded by Twitter users as “shocking”, “racist” and “shameful”.
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There are an estimated six million Muslims in France, of which around 100,000 are thought to be converts, the New York Times reports.
The country, which has a population of around 65 million, defines itself as secular and publishes no official statistics on race or creed.
The incident is particularly embarrassing for the SNCF because it played a role in the deportation of Jews during the Second World War.
In 2011 it released a statement expressing “sorrow and regret” in which it conceded the SNCF’s equipment and staff were used to haul 76,000 French and other European Jews to Germany, where they were sent to death camps.
Fewer than 3,000 returned alive.
The railroad has repeatedly reiterated it was requisitioned for the Nazi war effort and had no choice in the matter, the Associated Press reports.