PARIS – As the race heats up among Elysee hopefuls, halal meat has become a political issue for France’s presidential candidates for getting support for the country’s top post.
"There is no controversy here,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told supporters in Rungis in the southern suburb of Paris on Tuesday, February 21, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
“Every year we consume 200,000 tonnes of meat in the Paris region and 2.5 percent of it is kosher or halal.”
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, said last week that all meat in Paris was halal.
"All the abattoirs of the Paris region have succumbed to the rules of a minority. We have reason to be disgusted," Le Pen told a rally in Lille on Saturday.
Adding to the controversy, a documentary was aired by France 2 alleging that slaughterhouses around Paris have switched meat production entirely to halal methods.
The documentary said that all the abattoirs in the greater Paris region were producing only halal meat, selling some without labeling it as such to avoid the cost of running separate lines for halal and non-halal customers.
The concept of halal -- meaning permissible in Arabic -- has traditionally been applied to food.
Muslims should only eat meat from livestock slaughtered by a sharp knife from their necks, and the name of Allah, the Arabic word for God, must be mentioned.
Halal meat is a booming market in France and growing demand for it on school, hospital and company canteen menus has already caused tension and misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Officials say most of the meat consumed in and around Paris is slaughtered outside the region and much of it still comes from slaughterhouses that use non-halal methods.
Home to Western Europe's largest Muslim minority, estimated at between five and six million, France has for years been debating how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam, now the country's second religion.
The country has come under fire from Muslim groups for a series of measures authorities say are aimed at protecting France's secular tradition, including a ban on wearing hijab (headscarf) and full-face veils such as niqab and the burqa.
Sarkozy’s interior minister Claude Gueant also denied claims that all meat in Paris was halal.
Le Pen's claim is "absolutely false", Gueant said on Sunday, noting that, while there are halal slaughterhouses in the region, their products are clearly marked.
"Veterinary services ensure that abattoirs send halal production to people who want to consume halal meat," he told French media.
He noted that there were "frequent checks to avoid any misrepresentation of products".
Producers say that while slaughtering in the region was mostly done according to Islamic or Jewish traditions, only about two percent of the meat consumed in the greater Paris area came from the region itself.
But the far-right aspirant insisted that the halal meat was being distributed in Paris without a label.
“Neither you nor I know which is halal and which is not,” Le Pen said on France Inter radio on Tuesday.
She said that the halal slaughter was less humane than standard European practice, because they ban the practice of stunning animals before they are killed.
"Widespread animal suffering, in violation of French and European law, is not trivial," Le Pen said.
"The fact that a majority of French people are being misled about what they buy is not a trivial controversy.”
Le Pen is struggling to catch up to Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the election campaign.A BVA poll Friday showed Sarkozy had an 11 point lead over Len Pen in the first round of the election on April 22, although Hollande would still comfortably beat the incumbent in the May 6 runoff.
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