The day before Peres’s arrival on 8 March a manager of SNCF baggage-handling subsidiary, Itirémia, barred “black and Arab” porters from handling Peres’s bags in case they might be Muslims, the left-wing union Sud-Rail said in a statement on Friday.
“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 that there couldn’t be any Muslims getting close to Shimon Peres,” SudRail representative Monique Dabat told RFI.
Challenged at a meeting with union representatives, Itirémia admitted that workers had been picked “according to appearance”, the SudRail statement said.
Itirémia at first blamed local rules, then the Israeli embassy and then France’s Interior Ministry but the union claims that an email proves that the SNCF itself ordered the move.
The SNCF denied having given any such order or receiving instructions from the ministry or the embassy in a statement sent to RFI, adding that an internal inquiry is taking place.
The union also claims that two other SNCF employees – a “mixed-race” ticket inspector and a driver of north African origin – were ordered to keep away from Peres, although local union leader Mehdi Mostefaoui admits that he has no proof that this was because of their origins.
Peres was in Paris to meet President François Hollande during a tour which saw him receive a standing ovation at the European parliament for a speech in which he attacked “terrorist madness” in Lebanon, Syria and Iran and called for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
Racial discrimination is illegal in France and the secular constitution means that the state is not supposed to take into consideration a citizen's religious beliefs.