French PM scrambles to defuse halal-kosher row

France’s prime minister told Jewish leaders on Wednesday he had not meant to stigmatise their community when he urged them to rethink ancient dietary laws, as he strove to defuse a fractious row about minorities in the run up to a presidential election.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon caused an uproar on Tuesday when he said the Jewish and Muslim “ancestral traditions” of ritual slaughter were outdated and unjustified. It was the latest in a series of divisive comments by politicians about the religious practices of France’s ethnic minorities, seen as a bid to attract right-wing voters ahead of a two-round election in April and May.

French Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim and Paris Central Consistory President Joel Mergui said Fillon reassured them during a meeting in his office on Wednesday that he had not did not intend to abolish halal and kosher meat slaughter in France.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brought the issue of ritually prepared meat into his faltering reelection campaign last weekend, defended his ally Fillon on television on Tuesday evening and said the debate about religious slaughter customs was overdone.

“The prime minister clearly explained that he understood we were hurt,” Mergui said after the meeting. “He explained very clearly that there was no intention to question ritual slaughter in France.”

“He denied wanting to hurt us. He denied wanting to take aim at religion or the Jewish community,” Bernheim added.

Fillon was due to receive French Muslim Council President Mohammad Moussaoui and Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur on Thursday to give the same message to the Muslim community.

Moussaoui said on Tuesday that Muslims would not “serve as scapegoats in this campaign.”

Reuters, 7 March 2011