By Cedomir Nestorovic, The Straits Times
AS CAMPAIGNING heats up for the French presidential elections starting this month, a hot issue in political discussions is halal meat.
The halal meat topic was first brought to the table by right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader and candidate for the French presidency. Ms Le Pen, whose party has incited fears of growing Islamic influence on France’s secular society, claimed that all meat sold in the Paris region is halal but not labelled as such. The government allegedly misled French consumers, who were unaware they were buying halal meat.
President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the claim while accepting the idea that people should be informed of whether meat is halal or not. If this idea is implemented, it would be the first time a product is labelled ‘non-halal’.
Dr Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, who researches halal business in France at the University of Provence, says 32 per cent of lamb and beef sold in France is halal because slaughterhouses find it more cost-effective to use one technique instead of two, either ritual or non- ritual slaughtering. So if there is a requirement for ritual slaughtering in any part of meat production, they tend to adopt ritual slaughtering exclusively as this is the most cost-effective.
But labelled halal meat represents only 7 of that 32 per cent. So 25 per cent of halal meat sold is not labelled ‘halal’, and consumers buy halal meat without knowing it.
Meat producers and distributors do not want halal certificates on all meat because they are afraid consumers will not buy it if it is labelled as such. For business, this may mean a significant loss.
Politically, the halal issue is a powerful tool in a campaign against Islam, joining other controversies such as street prayers and niqabs in fuelling fears about Islamic influences and practices in France.
With France home to the largest Muslim community in the Western world, it should tread carefully when dealing with this kind of controversy and address these issues in a rational and objective way. But the presidential elections are probably not the best time or place to do so.
There are two possible ways to address this issue. The first is to consider halal food as a technical rather than religious issue, by adopting a standard for ritual slaughtering that does not involve religious meaning and influence.
For several years now, France’s national standardisation body AFNOR has been working with other standardisation bodies in Europe to develop a European halal standard. When this eventually rolls out, it will be benchmarked to national or European points of reference, and independent of any religious organisation. The standard will specify technical guidelines for ritual slaughtering with no religious reference. There will also be a need for laws on proper labelling, clearly stating what constitutes halal and non-halal.
The leading consumers’ group, Union Federale des Consommateurs, has suggested that government institutions (such as those for fraud investigations and sanitary protection) be given the task of checking a product’s halal status and verifying it for consumers. The role of religious organisations can be minimised as verification will not have to involve them.
If these two initiatives succeed, halal certification and labelling will purely be technical and no different, for instance, from the certification and labelling of organic products.
The second possibility is to consider halal labelling as a legal issue and permit Muslims to establish laws pertaining to their customs and habits. This means accepting the Muslim population as a constituent part of the French nation and not a foreign people.
As a constituent community of France, Muslims can establish their own set of rules informed by customs and habits, including ritual slaughtering and food labelling, which the law of the country will be obliged to recognise and accept. If France goes down this road, it will be following common law countries such as Canada or Australia.
But getting support for such policies is a major problem, even in a common law nation like Britain. In 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, suggested Britain should partially adopt some elements of syariah law into its legal system. He argued that some citizens may not relate to the British legal system, so allowing for such accommodation would help to maintain social cohesion. His views were roundly condemned and criticised.
In France, some politicians routinely identify Muslims as foreigners even if they are French nationals. Recently, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant rejected the possibility of foreign nationals voting in the elections. By giving them the vote, he said, it could empower them to make impositions on France’s secular society. An example of this would be a demand for all public schools to serve halal food.
Given France’s civil law system, it is hard to imagine such provisions of accommodation adopted in French law. France is a champion of secularism and is bound by the 1905 law to keep state and religion separate. According to the French Constitution, ‘the Republic is one and indivisible’. So communitarianism, an ideology in which communities are recognised on the basis of their ethnic origin or faith, must be rejected.
Even if the Muslim community unites with the rest of France, it would still be recognised only as an association of people and not as a constituent part of the nation. Consequently, Muslim customs and habits cannot be transformed into laws of the country, and the idea of accommodation has to be ruled out.
It seems transforming a religious issue into a technical one is the easier path to take. It would also be the more practical solution, provided that there is agreement on all fronts including Muslim organisations in France.
The presence of Islam and the issues surrounding it will not go away any time soon. There will almost certainly be more heated debate arising from these issues, even after the elections are over. For the country’s leaders, addressing them appropriately and effectively is a tough task, one that is not to be taken for granted.
The writer is a professor at ESSEC Business School Paris-Singapore and author of Marketing In An Islamic Environment.