Argument

France's Beef With Islam

France's topsy-turvy presidential election now has candidates arguing over, of all things, halal meat.

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.

It's hard to take the National Front's health concerns seriously here. The party has called ritual slaughter a "barbaric" practice that "spreads bacteria" to nonbelievers. (In halal slaughtering, the animal is not stunned before its throat is cut, but that is a difference without material distinction for the end product.) Just as the organic-produce movement in Europe overlapped with the anti-American sentiments of some activists, it is clear that the sudden concern for animal welfare correlates with general hostility toward Islam.

Ironically, Sarkozy and his UMP party fostered this atmosphere. On Feb. 20, Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire invited Le Pen to "go explain her objections to ritual slaughter to the Muslim community -- and to the Jewish community while you're at it." (Anti-Islam activists generally avoid mentioning the fact that kosher meat involves nearly the exact same slaughtering procedure.) He indignantly accused the far right of scapegoating Muslims. But two years ago, the same official denounced a fast-food chain for serving exclusively halal meat.

This time, the government sensed it had gone too far only after the public reaction to Prime Minister François Fillon's comment on March 5 that "in a modern country, there are ancestral traditions that used to correspond with the demands of hygiene, but that don't have much to do with anything anymore" -- breaking the final taboo of whether kosher slaughter was targeted by the public debate.

The Jewish community was "stupefied," Muslims felt "scapegoated," and the prime minister immediately walked his message back and met with Jewish and Muslim representatives the following day. This was a step-by-step re-enactment of the interior minister's attempt to salve hard feelings among Jewish and Muslim leaders after the most recent "secularism debate" in April 2011.

Sarkozy and his party have always thought they can beat Le Pen on her own turf, and they have successfully attracted her supporters in the past. In response to the National Front's upset showing of 18 percent in the 2002 elections, the UMP rallied public opinion behind the March 2004 "headscarf law." The strategy paid dividends in the 2007 presidential election, when the National Front received only 11 percent and Sarkozy walked away with 31 percent -- and then, the presidency.

The UMP kept up its seduction routine for the duration of Sarkozy's first term: first with the creation of a "Ministry of National Identity," followed by a three-month "grand debate on national identity," and then an extended national discussion on burqas that culminated in their complete prohibition in 2011. It halted a further debate on "secularism and Islam" last year only after its closest Muslim allies threatened to decamp and respected figures like current Foreign Minister Alain Juppé called for an end to the stigmatization of Islam.

Since the start of the 2012 campaign, Sarkozy and his deputies have continued to blow their dog whistles to the far right. On Feb. 5, the interior minister ventured, "Unlike the left, we do not believe all civilizations are equal." The next day, he announced new naturalization standards for immigrants. Three days after that, he ordered the expulsion of a radical imam. The president promised a center-right newspaper that he would keep immigration and identity at the heart of his platform -- and he delivered.

Sarkozy was not predestined to take on the role of Muslim-baiter-in-chief. He is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. One of his earliest accomplishments was to establish the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). Back in 2003, he supported a headscarf ban in national identification photos, but not one in schools. Since he joined government a decade ago, a thousand new Islamic prayer spaces have opened across France. In February alone, the first Muslim cemetery was inaugurated, a national stamp was issued featuring the Great Mosque of Paris, and Sarkozy inducted the president of the CFCM into the Légion d'Honneur.

France has only escaped having the National Front bloc in Parliament, however, because electoral rules and regulations keep the party out of the National Assembly and Senate. The president has avoided challenging the validity of Le Pen's views. Sarkozy's ideological promiscuity allows the French political system to reflect a slice of that public opinion that has been excluded from national institutions.

Sarkozy has not invited National Front leaders to cross the line into mainstream politics. But he has embraced the National Front's ideas in pursuit of its 4 million voters. In two recent surveys, 42 percent of French respondents said the Muslim presence is a threat to national identity, and 76 percent said Islam is advancing too quickly. The French electorate, not just the government's platform, has been partially "LePen-ized." Le Pen's highlighting of halal meat hit the same nerve of French insecurity about its Muslim minority that the Sarkozy administration has worked hard to keep exposed.

The mainstream left of the Socialist Party has never shown much appetite for this fight, either. It backed the government's headscarf and burqa laws, and its last presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal (the ex-partner* of the current Socialist candidate), supported sending unruly youth to boot camp. During her campaign, she evoked France's "veiled," "raped," and "crushed" Muslim women.

To the horror of French centrists, only Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a presidential candidate representing the Front de Gauche, to the left of the Socialist Party, has consistently confronted Le Pen head-on, most recently on Feb. 23 in a much-circulated talk-show clip.

During the week of halal scandal, Sarkozy and his Socialist rival, François Hollande, each lost 2 percentage points of approval in opinion surveys, while the leftist Mélenchon neared 10 percent for the first time and Le Pen hovered at 17.5 percent -- the very score that got her father into a face-off with Jacques Chirac in 2002.

It's still unimaginable that the second round of the French presidential election would feature the far left against the far right. But with no "popular front" against anti-Islam populism in sight, the National Front will have few obstacles in its path. The president and his party never stopped feeding the crocodile, and sooner or later it's going to get around to eating them.

Correction: This piece originally referred to Ségolène Royal as the ex-spouse of presidential candidate François Hollande. They were never married.

AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Black Hole of North Korea

What economists can't tell you about the most isolated country on Earth.

The government of North Korea regards economic statistics as state secrets, which makes the country's economy difficult to study. I do careful survey research on the North Korean economy by surveying defectors, Chinese enterprises, and South Korean firms. Still, North Korea is so opaque that when I am asked where I get my data, I normally reply, "I make it up." And I'm only half-joking.

Others seem less than half-serious. Last month, the South Korean news agency Yonhap ran a story about a report from a major South Korean think tank stating that North Korea's GDP grew 4.7 percent in 2011. That think tank, the Hyundai Research Institute, used a combination of United Nations infant mortality data for 198 countries over the 2000-2008 period and North Korean crop data to estimate annual North Korean per capita income. While infant mortality and food availability correlate with income, one cannot meaningfully estimate year-to-year income changes with these two pieces of information alone.

Spurious precision is not unique to the study of North Korea, and this example isn't even the worst -- in the 1990s, two Japanese researchers claimed they had calculated North Korean per capita income down to the dime. But nowhere else is the gap between what we know and what we think we know so wide. I cannot remember the last time the North Koreans published a budget containing levels (i.e., actual numbers) and not percentages (e.g., crop yield grew 5 percent). Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute once visited the Central Statistics Bureau in Pyongyang; the bureau told him that its statistics were elastic, "like rubber bands."

Whatever your metaphor, North Korean statistics are fragmentary, subject to gross error and even intentional deception. Although one can employ statistical techniques to root out obvious anomalies and impose internal consistency, in the end, analysis of North Korean data is as much about forensic art as science, about acknowledging that some statistics deny precision.

In principle, we should be able to at least get a sense of North Korea's external relations by examining the "mirror statistics" of the country's trading partners -- adding up what other countries say they import from North Korea, for example, to calculate its exports.

But even such an apparently simple exercise is fraught. Every year some country around the world reports an amazing spike in trade or investment with North Korea, consisting mostly of North Korean cell phones and automobiles. Has Apple opened an iPhone factory in Pyongyang? No, someone in the bowels of some national statistical agency has confused North and South Korea. Both Mexico and Austria have done so in the past; Denmark confused the two in its 2009 outward investment data. The disparity in the magnitudes of North and South Korean trade volumes is so vast, with North Korea trading very little and South Korea trading very much, that a single such instance of misidentification can completely distort North Korea's trade statistics. Our best-guess estimate for North Korea's total trade in 2010 is about $7 billion. Mexican trade with South Korea is $15 billion. So if a major trading country confuses the two Koreas, the misreporting can swamp reality.

The most widely cited source on North Korean trade, the South Korean government agency KOTRA, carefully screens the mirror data for such obvious anomalies. But KOTRA excludes the North's trade with South Korea on the constitutional grounds that inter-Korean trade is domestic. Because of budget cuts, or a desire to downplay North Korea's Middle East connections, KOTRA also ignores trade with many Middle Eastern countries like Algeria and Saudi Arabia, both of which report trade with North Korea to the U.N. statistical agencies. As a result, KOTRA greatly exaggerates the prominence of the trade partners that it does record, with important geopolitical implications. The New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, have both reported that China accounts for about 80 percent of North Korea's trade. The actual figure is roughly half as much, which means North Korea is a lot less economically dependent on China than those figures imply.

How about internal data? The most widely cited sources are the South Korean government and the U.N. agencies. The former produces estimates of North Korean national income while the latter produces estimates on things such as agricultural output and food aid requirements. In recent years the U.S. government has downscaled its efforts in these areas and no longer provides much of an alternative to the South Korean and U.N. figures. These analysts face the challenge of analyzing an economy swathed in secrecy, a challenge compounded by the politicization of their efforts. Thus, their estimates come with a wide margin of error.

It is doubtful that anyone, including the people inside the North Korean government, knows the real size of the North Korean economy. Since the centrally planned economy went into decline 20 years ago, a significant share of economic activity has moved into the semi-legal, largely unregulated market economy. North Korea has never been egalitarian, but over the same period, an enormous gulf has opened between lifestyles in the capital, Pyongyang, and conditions in the hinterland. Little hard evidence exists to quantify these developments. The North Korean government restricts aid agencies' access to the population (and even restricts the number of Korean speakers in agencies' resident missions), making conventional assessments impossible. When the U.N. World Food Program began doing household surveys and focus groups, the government quickly shut down the effort, afraid that too much information would leak out.

The South Koreans construct their estimates by making estimates of physical output based on satellite imagery, and possibly spies or informants, and then aggregate the physical output according to a secret input-output table. This estimate is then subject to interagency discussion before the South Korean central bank publicly releases the figures.

This process is not particularly transparent and appears vulnerable to politicization. In 2000, the central bank delayed the announcement of the estimate until one week before the historic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The figures implied an extraordinary acceleration of North Korea's growth rate to nearly 7 percent. This had never occurred before and has not been repeated since. Under current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, the central bank's figures imply that the North Korean economy has barely grown at all.

The work of the U.N. agencies appears similarly problematic. Probably the most policy-relevant information released by the United Nations are estimates of North Korea's food aid needs produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP). On the supply side, the FAO is diplomatically obliged to take seriously the official North Korean production numbers, which appear to exaggerate harvests in good times and understate output when aid is needed. The demand-side calculation of how much food the North Koreans need is open to challenge on a variety of grounds, most notably uncertainty about the centrality of grain in the North Korean diet. The U.N. agencies have become increasingly transparent and open about the possible shortcomings of their calculations; previous reports would include a figure and then merely state that it had not been scientifically observed. Still, the FAO-WFP numbers imply that North Korea has been in continuous famine for a decade, something that no credible observer would claim.

Sadly, we don't even know how many North Koreans there are, how many serve in the armed forces, how many died in the famine, or how many have fled their country. For some purposes this is fine -- we can count their tanks even if we don't know how they pay for them. But for others -- how much aid should we provide, are sanctions likely to work, and ultimately, is time on our side or theirs -- we would be wise to ask the questions "what do we know" and "how do we know it" when formulating policy on North Korea.

Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale once counseled me that anyone who claims to be an expert on the North is a liar or a fool. My corollary is: Don't trust any figure on the North Korean economy that comes with a decimal point attached.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images