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.