The French, as no one really needs to be reminded, take their food pretty seriously. So perhaps it shouldn't have been shocking that recent revelations that the country's halal butchers have been quietly selling their surplus to non-halal distributors has emerged as a hot-button presidential campaign issue at a time when candidates might be expected to focus more on unemployment or the spiraling European economic crisis.
The tabloid-ready story, first raised in a public television documentary in mid-February, has given far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen the chance to point out yet another capitulation to Islam under President Nicolas Sarkozy's watch. With characteristic embellishment, Le Pen claimed on Feb. 18 that all meat eaten in the Paris region is now slaughtered according to Islamic ritual.
Sarkozy visited a meat locker to deny her claims, saying less than 3 percent of meat consumed in France is halal (or kosher), and the government announced a new system for tracing slaughtered animals. But the scandal, pardon the pun, had legs: Non-Muslim French people have unwittingly eaten thousands of tons of halal meat. Sensing a political opening, the National Front leader filed consumer fraud and animal cruelty lawsuits on Feb. 23 to keep the issue alive.
Faced with the reality of public opinion that is receptive to the halal issue, Sarkozy and his lieutenants decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The interior minister warned that granting municipal voting rights to foreigners could lead to halal meat being imposed on school cafeterias. The president threw his support behind the National Front's proposal to label all halal meat and told reporters that halal meat is the "number one issue" on the French electorate's mind.
But the halal meat scandal has revealed a hidden weakness in Sarkozy's reelection strategy. Since his rightward lurch in the French culture wars during the 2007 elections, he has managed to outstrip Le Pen's National Front at its own game by declaring "multiculturalism" a failure, supporting several efforts to ban the wearing of burqas, and starting a national debate on the theme of French "identity." Taking up his earlier argument of five years ago that the National Front should not be allowed a "monopoly" over the theme of French nationhood, Sarkozy told supporters on March 5 that national identity is "not a bad word." But in the high-stakes game of culture-war politics, staying one move ahead of the National Front requires constant vigilance.
The French always want to know exactly what they're eating -- be it genetically modified corn or halal beef. Brouhahas have raged before over the kind of meat sold in supermarket and fast-food chains. In fact, the nearly $6 billion halal market is worth one-and-a-half times the organic meat business. France has an estimated 3.1 million consumers of halal meat, and fully 44 percent of non-practicing Muslims say they purchase it exclusively.