French take exception to Disneyland grooming rules

NOISY LE GRAND, FRANCE — NOISY LE GRAND, France -- Should the French have to shave every day and wear underwear for a Mickey Mouse job?

Walt Disney Co., which is in the midst of hiring about 12,000 people to maintain and populate its Euro Disneyland theme park near Paris, thinks so. But in making detailed rules on acceptable clothing, hairstyles and jewelry part of its terms of employment, the company finds itself caught in a legal and cultural dispute.


The controversy has risen above the usual labor squabble as critics in the press, at universities and elsewhere have joined in asking how brash Americans could be so insensitive to French culture, individualism and privacy.

Most of the critics, and many people on the street, seem amazed, if not amused, that Disney found it necessary to put such a subjective and personal hygiene code in writing, and to make its violation a firing offense for everyone from the actors portraying Mickey and Minnie who greet visitors to the chambermaids cleaning hotel rooms.


Disney executives say the planned April 12 opening of the $4.2 billion complex in Marne-La-Vallee, 20 miles east of Paris, is unlikely to be delayed by the conflict, which is being investigated by a district court. But they insist that any ruling that bars them from imposing squeaky-clean employment standards could threaten the image and long-term success of the park.

"For us, the appearance code has a great effect from a product-identification standpoint," said Thor Degelmann, vice president for human resources for Euro Disneyland, which has its headquarters in Noisy Le Grand. Mr. Degelmann, an American from Los Angeles, is in charge of hiring for the theme park.

"Without it, we wouldn't be presenting the Disney product that people would be expecting," he added. "It would be like going to see a production of 'Hamlet' in which everyone looked different than you expected. Would you ever go again?"

The rules, spelled out in a video presentation for job applicants and detailed in a guidebook, "Le Euro Disneyland Look," go way beyond height and weight standards. They require men's hair to be cut above the collar and ears, with no beards or mustaches. Any tattoos must be covered.

Women must keep their hair in one "natural color" with no frosting or streaking, and they may make only "limited use" of makeup like mascara. False eyelashes, eyeliner and eyebrow pencil are completely off limits. Fingernails can't pass the ends of the fingers.

As for jewelry, women can wear only one earring in each ear, with the earring's diameter no more than 2 centimeters (about three-quarters of an inch). Neither men nor women can wear more than one ring on each hand.

Further, women are required to wear "appropriate undergarments" and only transparent pantyhose, not black or anything with fancy designs.

Similar rules are in force at Disney's three other amusement parks in the United States and Japan.


Though a daily bath is not specifically mentioned in the rules, the applicants' video depicts a shower scene and informs applicants that they are expected to show up for work "fresh and clean each day."

In the United States, some unions representing Disney employees have occasionally protested the company's strict appearance code, but with little success.

French labor unions began protesting the regulations in September, when Euro Disneyland opened its "casting center" at its corporate headquarters and began interviewing thousands of applicants who responded to the company's ubiquitous ad campaign, which invited job-seekers to "play the role of your life" and to take a "unique opportunity to marry work and magic."

The Communist-led Confederation Generale du Travail (General Confederation of Labor) handed out leaflets in front of the center to warn applicants of the appearance code, which represented "an attack on individual liberty," it contended.

A more mainstream union, the Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFTD) appealed to the Labor Ministry to halt what it termed Disney's violation of "human dignity."

The conflict became more serious on Dec. 2, when a government labor inspector lodged a formal complaint against the company, prompting a preliminary investigation by the prosecutor's office that sources say is likely to lead to court action in the weeks ahead.


The complaint charged that the appearance rules constituted a form of disciplinary code that applied to all employees and should therefore, under French labor law, be included in the company's internal employment regulations instead of as an attachment to the employment contract.

The legal nuance is important, because if the code was written into internal regulations, it would first have to win the approval of the national labor inspector's office. A government official said it would be difficult for Disney's particular restrictions to win approval, because they appeared to have little bearing on the work of all employees.

"In certain cases, I could see a connection, but certainly not for 12,000 people," the official said.

Robert Chabin, an official of the CFDT, said that "no more than 700" employees would be involved in theatrical work at the park -- parades, bands and the like -- and that for the other positions, the code "cannot be justified by necessity."

French law prohibits employers from restricting individual and collective liberties unless the restrictions can be justified by the nature of the task to be accomplished and are proportional to that end.

But beyond whatever legal prescriptions arise, it is clear that many French people feel stung by the whole episode. Roger Blancpain, a professor of labor law and president of the International Industrial Relations Association, based in Geneva, said Disney's code represented a frontal assault on French and European social standards.


"A certain kind of underwear?" he asked. "There's a limit, and that's going too far."

He insisted that Euro Disneyland management "should have been aware of the environment it was operating in and shown more sensitivity."

Mr. Degelmann, however, said the company was "well aware of the cultural differences" between the United States and France, and as a result had "toned down" the wording in the restrictions from the original U.S. version.

He said the conflict resulted from a "lack of understanding" about the nature of a Disney park.

Many other companies, particularly airlines, maintained appearance codes just as strict, he added. "We happened to put ours in writing," he said.

A generalized code, he said, was required because employees in "backstage" positions might be asked on any given day to assume a job that would involve contact with the public, and therefore all workers needed to maintain an appearance appropriate for that possibility.


In any case, he said he knew of no one who had refused to take a job because of the rules.

But Stephane Baudet, a 28-year-old trumpet player from Paris, said in an interview that he refused to audition for a job in a Disney brass band when he learned he would have to cut his ponytail, which flaps a few inches over his collar. He said that he was also dissuaded by the long hours and low pay -- 6,000 francs ($1,150) a month, or about 20 percent more than the French minimum wage.

"Some people will turn themselves into a pumpkin to work at Euro Disneyland," he said. "But not me."