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two communities came a day after Prime Minister Francois Fillon urged Muslims and Jews to consider scrapping their “outdated” slaughter rules.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