Holy Cow! Prime Minister’s meat comment angers French Muslim and Jewish leaders
Many Parisians like a good steak frites. As I witnessed at the Paris Farm show last week, a Frenchman cannot help but grin at a fine piece of French rump, of the bovine variety of course. And yet, French agriculture isn’t just about the pride of the nation’s dinner plate. According to a new report, farmers and farmers’ households make up 8 per cent of the country’s voting electorate.
It was for the sake of the farmer’s vote that all the French Presidential candidates donned wellies and got stuck in the mud at the capital’s agricultural show. President Nicolas Sarkozy, Francoise Hollande, Marine Le Pen et al – pressing the flesh, and not all of it human. As my F24 colleague Luke Brown put it in his Campaign Chronicles report, “At the Paris Farm Show as well as the smell of manure, there’s the whiff of political rivalry in the air.”
However, when French Prime Minister Francois Fillon put his foot in it, he was nowhere near the Paris Farm show. On Monday 5 March he was in an animal-free radio studio. It was there that he made a comment about halal and kosher meat that’s put him in the stink with French Muslim and Jewish groups.
FILLON’S FOOT IN MOUTH EPISODE
In an interview on Europe 1, Francois Fillon was asked about his boss Nicolas Sarkozy’s call on Saturday 3 March for French butchers to clearly label if meat that had been butchered according to halal or kosher slaughter laws.
However, Fillon went off on a slightly different tack. He said, “I think that religions should question keeping traditions that don’t have much in common with today’s science and technology and issues of hygiene. We live in a modern world. These are ancestral laws that aren’t any use now.”
He added, “but that’s not a debate for now”. That was perhaps an optimistic afterthought. The debate was launched and leaders from French Muslim and Jewish groups are fuming.
“NO RIGHT TO GIVE ADVICE ABOUT RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS”
“It will stigmatise Muslims and Jews” said Mohammed Moussaoui, head of France’s Muslim Council, “as people who don’t respect the interest of animals”.
Richard Prasquier, head of CRIF, an umbrella group of French Jewish organisations was "astonished”. In a country where there is a "division between Church and State" he said, “the government has no right to give advice about religious traditions.”
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish minorities. Although French law forbids any official census by religious belief, its estimated that there are around 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews living here.
Dr Isabel Hollis is a Lecturer in French at the University of London Institute in Paris. She told me that Fillon's comment was “divisive” and contradicted “the ideas at the very heart of the French constitution – i.e. the non-recognition of cultural difference in the name of equality.” Dr Hollis believed that the stigmatisation of Islam in France is not “uncommon” and that there is a struggle “to maintain laicité” and avoid "marginalising religions". However, crucially, the fact that Islam is often made a special case in point "serves only, literally, to separate Muslims from everyone else.”
“EATING IS A HUGE PART OF JEWISH CELEBRATIONS”
A Jewish friend living in Paris told me that he’d feel “uncomfortable” living in a country where kosher meat couldn’t be produced. “The restriction of religious freedoms reminds us of times in the recent past when Jews have been persecuted. Indeed, some of the first laws that Hitler enacted was the prohibition of kosher meat, so it could feel like a slippery slope.”
For him, “eating is a huge part of Jewish celebrations”, and keeping kosher a reminder of his “distinct Jewish identity”. However he added that for him keeping kosher is an unequivocal religious law – and that Fillon’s comment misses that point. “Kosher dietary laws, at least in the orthodox community, are not followed because they are or are not healthy, or humane or whatever, but because Jews were commanded to do so by God via Moses on Mount Sinai. Therefore, to a religious Jew, whether the Prime Minister thinks these laws are inhumane or not is completely irrelevant.”
My local halal butcher, who preferred not be named, was nonplussed. He shook his head as he asked me, “What would all the Muslims in this area do if there weren’t halal butchers? What would all the Jews do is there wasn’t kosher meat?” This boucherie d’halal is a small, independent business. I am in there for around 15 minutes and there is a constant stream of customers. The butcher tells me that the majority of his clients are Muslim but that he has non-Muslim customers too. “Why is the Prime Minister talking about how we slaughter animals? People who come to a halal butcher know that the meat will be halal. People can chose. We are a local butcher, as well as a halal butcher.”
HALAL HOBBY HORSE
This is not the first time that halal meat has made the headlines in Paris. In mid-February, with a look of horror, the National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen told a packed far-right conference that, “All Paris abattoirs produce 100 per cent halal meat, and customers don’t even know about it!”. Le Pen, whose party has traditionally taken an ultra-nationalist stance, looked outraged.
A few days later, President Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed the claims. On a trip to the capital’s largest meat wholesalers, Rungis, last week, he said Le Pen’s comment was false. "There is no controversy here,” said the President, surrounded by dozens of hanging meat carcasses, “every year we consume 200,000 tonnes of meat in the Paris region and 2.5 percent of it is kosher or halal."
And yet just days later, on Saturday 3 March, President Sarkozy called for clear labelling of kosher and halal meat. The latter, he said, was the “the biggest concern amongst French people.”
What do Parisians think? In the interest of research, I took a straw poll amongst a few Parisian friends: were they concerned about whether the meat they ate was halal or not? “I don't care, as long as it tastes good” replied one. Another, “I would be more worried about losing my job or the boulangerie closing earlier!”.
An IFOP/Paris Match poll published today has similar results. In a list of 13 things that ‘French people are talking about’, halal meat comes ninth. Behind Jean- Dujardian’s Oscar win, behind Francois Hollande’s 75 per cent tax plan for the country’s richest and behind the Costa Concordia ferry disaster. In short, the French are talking about sex, money and death. Halal? For the majority, not really.
WOOING THE FAR-RIGHT
So, if most French people are not concerned about halal meat, why has it become a campaign issue? Well, in short, to appeal to the minority who do care. Need I remind you that there’s a presidential election in April? Much has been written about President Sarkozy’s attempts to woo traditionally far-right voters in a last-ditch attempt to boost his tapering approval figures and extend his tenure in the French Presidential palace.
Along with his hard-line Interior Minister Claude Gueant, Sarkozy’s taken a strong stance on immigration. There’s been a clear line drawn between the French and the “foreigners” who live here. Now, halal meat has been placed on the UMP campaign table too. Prime Minister Fillon’s comments on religious animal slaughter laws seem to suggest how far Team Sarkozy is prepared to push the far-right envelope. For me, it leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth.
Contact me on @katerinaf24