Bite put on fast-food chain over halal menu

After the debate over the niqab, now there’s a hubbub over halal in France.

Police in the northern city of Lille have launched an investigation into claims a fast-food restaurant was discriminating against non-Muslim customers by dropping bacon burgers from its menu and using only halal meat. The public prosecutor ordered the probe after the Socialist mayor of the nearby town of Roubaix sued the Quick fast-food chain for switching to Muslim dietary laws in eight of its 350 branches.

Quick — a rival to far larger global chains, such as McDonald’s, in France and Belgium — now offers smoked turkey and halal beef and no pork in those branches. “Why should the people of Roubaix be forced to go to Lille or elsewhere to find bacon?” asked Franck Berton, the lawyer for Mayor René Vandierendonck, when we queried him on the case.

The halal hubbub flared up this week after Marine Le Pen, vice-president of the far-right National Front, charged that clients “are forced because of halal meat to pay a tax to Islamic organizations” that certify the food was produced according to Muslim dietary laws. We examined thislast Thursday in the news story “French politicians rap fast food chain for halal menu.”

Not one to shy away from upping the rhetorical ante, Le Pen accused President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday of supporting a “forced Islamisation of France” because an arm of the state-owned savings bank, the Caisse des Depots et Consignations, held 99.63% of Quick’s capital.

This being campaign season in France — regional elections are coming up in March — politicians of both main parties jumped into the fray. Vandierendonck was the main Socialist to do so, while from the conservative side, several MPs denounced the halal menu as discriminatory and a sign of “communautarisme” — which is better translated by the Indian term communalism or sectarianism — than by its English-language “false friend” communitarianism. Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire avoided the “no freedom of choice” argument but said: “When they remove all the pork from a restaurant open to the public, I think they fall into communalism, which is against the principles and the spirit of the French republic.”

The uproar, like France’s drive to ban Muslim face veils and its state-led debate on national identity, has come just ahead of regional elections next month. Quick began what it calls a six-month marketing test in late November, but the politicans didn’t seem to notice it then. Like the ban-the-burqa drive and France’s government-led debate on national identity, the timing link to the elections speaks louder than the politicians’ denials of any connection.

It says something about France that these politicians think their cries of “discrimination” pass the giggle test. The neighbourhoods where Quick went halal have lots of potential customers of Muslim background. The halal market is growing in France and there already are lots of couscous restaurants and kebab stands that naturally use only halal meat — and many non-Muslims happily eat there. Why is there suddenly such an outcry for a “non-denominational” menu?

One of the great ironies, of course, is that these French politicians are standing up in defence of American fast food! There was a time when the French got worked up about les sandwiches. Nobody seems to notice that angle here.

Trying to find out why all of France is not laughing now, I asked a French friend how anyone could file a discrimination suit when the status quo ante — no halal menu for Muslim customers — was not considered a problem. The best explanation she could come up with was that customers would expect a certain menu from a McDonald’s look-alike and would at least want a choice. But could this stand up in court? “The court of public opinion is all that matters here,” she remarked.

When French politicians tie themselves in knots like this, I wonder if anyone not familiar with this country can follow what’s happening. What do you think of all this?


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