France: French Jews, Muslims unite in anger over halal meat row

French Jewish and Muslim leaders on Tuesday condemned remarks made by PM François Fillon that certain religions should rethink their “ancestral traditions” of animal slaughter, complaining they were being used as pawns in the upcoming election.

AFP – France’s Jews and Muslims united Tuesday to complain they were being used as pawns in a presidential election increasingly dominated by bitter disputes over national identity and ritual slaughter.

“France’s problems are so major, as we are in a period of crisis, so how can the issue of kosher meat and halal meat be a major problem for France?” asked an exasperated Grand Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim.

For its part, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) slammed what it said was the use of Muslims as “scapegoats” in the election campaign in which halal slaughter of animals has become a hot-button issue.

The unusually strong reactions from the two communities came a day after Prime Minister Francois Fillon urged Muslims and Jews to consider scrapping their “outdated” slaughter rules.

The comment came as right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy — seeking re-election in April-May polls — and his ministers kept up efforts to woo far-right voters from the anti-immigrant National Front led by Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen launched the halal debate last month when she claimed all meat from Paris region abattoirs was prepared using Islamic halal traditions and that non-Muslim consumers in the capital were being misled.

Like kosher slaughter, the halal method requires the abattoir to kill the beast by slitting its throat. Stunning the beast first — as is done in non-ritual abattoirs — to lessen its ordeal is not permitted.

It later emerged that Paris region abattoirs mostly supplied local Muslim butchers and that most meat sold in Paris came from outside the region.

But the issue stuck and Sarkozy on Saturday suggested that meat should be labelled to tell consumers how the animal was slaughtered, which Jews and Muslims reject because they fear it will lead to them being stigmatised.

France is home to western Europe’s largest Muslim minority, officially estimated at least four million, and its largest Jewish community, estimated at up to 700,000.

The country has for years been debating how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam, now France’s second religion, and Sarkozy and Le Pen have both made the matter a central issue in their campaigns.

Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate and frontrunner in opinion polls, said Tuesday his rivals had now gone too far and called for “restraint”.

“Our Muslim and Jewish fellow citizens feel hurt, whatever their political allegiances might be,” he said.

Muslim Council leader Mohammed Moussaoui confirmed this.

“The CFCM does not understand why Islam and Muslims are being used as scapegoats in this campaign and cannot accept this,” he told AFP.

Richard Prasquier, head of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish organisations, said Monday that he was “shocked” by Fillon’s “stupefying” declaration.

Fillon’s office said that the prime minister would meet with Grand Rabbi Bernheim to discuss the ritual slaughter issue.

The prime minister said Monday that “religions should think about whether they should keep traditions that don’t have much in common with today’s state of science, technology and health problems.”

Sarkozy’s Interior Minister Claude Gueant explained Friday that halal meat was one reason why the current government opposed Hollande’s plan to give foreign residents the vote in French local elections.

“For example, we don’t want foreign local councillors making halal meat obligatory in school canteens,” he said.

Sarkozy’s government has come under fire from Muslim groups for a series of measures implemented during his five-year rule that they believe unfairly stigmatised their community.

These include a ban on wearing full-face veils such as the Islamic niqab and the burqa, moves which authorities say were aimed at protecting France’s secular tradition.

France will vote in the first round of a presidential election on April 22, followed by a second-round run-off on May 6.