If you find yourself wandering around certain parts of Paris, you’ll start to see various butchers and restaurants with the word “halal” attached to their name. Unlike kebabs, the politics of which I discussed in my last post, halal meat does have a direct relationship to and implication of Islam. The term “halal” means “permissible” or “allowed,” and refers to meat that is prepared in a specific way (for example, killed by hand and blessed), and without contact to other “forbidden” meats or cuts (such as pork, or hindquarters). Of course it is a bit more complicated than that – the Halal Wikipedia page has a more thorough definition – but for our purposes, it is enough to simply understand the essential relationship between halal meat and religion.
As with kebabs, there has been controversy over halal meat in France – perhaps even more so. In 2012, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen both spoke out in favor of labeling halal meat in order to prevent consumers from eating it unknowingly. This may sound odd – shouldn’t it be the other way around? The logic behind Sarkozy and Le Pen’s stance (aside from the obvious political competition between the two) was based on the “inhumane” way animals are killed to make halal meat. Also in 2012, Sarkozy removed special exceptions that provided halal meat to Muslim children in schools. But the resistance to halal meat wasn’t just a Sarkozy administration issue – this past summer, a French court ruled to stop serving halal meat in prisons; a French mayor attempted to ban halal meat in town canteens; Le Pen spoke out in favor of banning non-pork meals in schools. And so on…the host of controversies and issues surrounding halal meat continues.
An estimated 5 million Muslims in France make up a large portion of the population that in recent years has rightfully sought representation in the country they call home. Amidst a slew of offensive statements and controversial laws concerning facets of the Muslim religion, most notably the headscarf (which caused riots and heavy contention in France), the attempt to stifle halal meat seems like a blatant political statement against the religion it represents. Coupled with France’s traditionally assimilationist model of immigrant integration, a picture of a relatively closed France appears.
This is a difficult subject, but one that I feel should be talked about more, and not sensationalized as the media likes to do. A large part of the Western world simply just does not understand what halal meat is. It scares them, and reinforces the idea of an “other”. For France, a country that defines itself by its cuisine, accepting not only another cultural food but one that implies religious values presents an identity crisis. France has been secular since 1905, and before that it was Catholic. As the number of Muslims in the country continues to grow, there is fear that secularism is threatened. French politics are finding great difficulty in overcoming the projection of an ideal, French traditional past and truly seeing the present nature of the country and its people. Reductive policies that target certain groups in the name of preserving a traditional French culture undermine the very national motto of France itself: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” / “Freedom, equality, brotherhood.” There aren’t just millions of Muslims in France. There are millions of French Muslims.