What’s currently the main preoccupation of the French? Unemployment? The fate of the euro? Spending power? No. It’s halal meat, the ritual way of killing animals by Muslims for human consumption. At least, that’s what outgoing president and candidate for his own re-election Nicolas Sarkozy told an audience this week. His claim raised eyebrows as some thought it strange to focus on this topic when France and Europe were in the middle of the debt crisis, with unemployment on the rise.
But these are election times in France, and the explanation for Sarkozy’s statement lies in one name: Marine Le Pen. Three weeks earlier, the candidate for the extreme right anti-immigration National Front, raised the halal question in a very provocative way. She claimed – wrongly – that all the meat on sale in the greater Paris region was killed in the Muslim ritual way, without consumers being informed.
In the wake of this statement, Sarkozy was visiting the Rungis wholesale market for food, outside Paris. He pointed out that the true figure was that only 2.5% of the meat consumed in the greater Paris region was halal, and that it was not an issue. But opinion polls show Sarkozy’s campaign in great difficulty, trailing behind the Socialist party candidate François Hollande, and permanently threatened by Le Pen in third place.
No one was surprised, therefore, to hear interior minister Claude Guéant, a close ally and confidant of Sarkozy, attack the Socialists at the end of last week, claiming that their proposal to allow foreign residents in French towns to vote for local elections would lead to halal meat being imposed on all children in public school canteens. His argument was that foreigners with voting rights might influence local governments and push their own agenda – whether in school canteens, or in public swimming pools with separate hours for men and women. The argument quickly became a running joke on Twitter: some commentators said that if Alsacians had voting rights, children would have to eat choucroute, Alsace’s national dish, or if people from France’s southwest could vote, they would eat foie gras and drink Bordeaux wine …
The jokes stopped two days later when Sarkozy, in a major election speech, proposed a change to the law to impose transparency on the way animals were killed, a U-turn on his earlier comment that this was not an issue. This statement provoked anger not only among Muslims, who felt they were being used as an electioneering tool, but also Jews whose kosher meat follows the same ritual ways of killing as halal meat. Richard Prasquier, the head of the Jewish representative council in France, condemned the claims. He had been, until then, a staunch Sarkozy supporter. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, spokeswoman of Sarkozy’s campaign, distanced herself from the controversy.
Obviously Le Pen, having imposed her political agenda to the outgoing president, is laughing all the way to the polling booth, which is adding to the sense of panic in the presidential camp. Sarkozy had hoped that his official entry into the campaign would boost his support in opinion polls, pushing him into first place in the first round of voting on 22 April.