Like those B-list celebrities who regularly appear on daytime TV cookery shows, the French are generally quite comfortable with being defined by what they eat. Everything from blanquette de veau in the east to poule-au-pot in the west have helped mould the national character, with novel new regional recipes welcomed from all compass points throughout the centuries – particularly dishes overly rich in garlic and cream. Charles de Gaulle summed up this tasty diversity just after the second world war with the words: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”
Nowadays, following an influx of immigrants from former north African colonies, you would have to add couscous to the culinary-political mix too – a fact not lost on demagogues from left and right currently involved in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s national identity debate. While most concede that ground semolina originally from the Maghreb is now some kind of Gallic national dish (albeit a slightly comical one, in the same way that black berets remain the national headgear), all are far less happy with the growing popularity of halal, or food prepared according to Islamic practices.
Anger about halal’s ascendancy reached a head last month when Quick – a French fast food chain – admitted that many of its restaurants now stock little else, with even their “bacon burgers” made using smoked turkey. This led to claims of Islamification. “It’s discrimination against non-Muslims,” said René Vandierendonck, the nominally socialist mayor of Roubaix, a town in a notoriously xenophobic region close to the Belgium border. He was soon joined by MPs from Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party and – predictably – the Front National. All called for a boycott of Quick branches, before filing a formal complaint against Quick at a civil court in nearby Lille.
The legal action argues that if only halal foodstuffs are on Quick menus, then non-Muslims are being prevented from enjoying secular fast food alternatives, like reconstituted beef burgers and watery sausages. This is, of course, a bit like arguing that British fish and chip shops discriminate against those who don’t like eating deep fried, battered seafood and potato chips. The twisted logic was inadvertently summed up by agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire, a loyal Sarkozy lieutenant, with the words: “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 spirit of the French republic.”
What such rhetoric – and the misguided legal complaint – ignores is that the halal industry is far more commercial than cultural, and aims at thousands of French people outside the country’s five million strong Muslim community. A halal trade fair being held in Paris this week advertises that it is worth more than £5bn a year (£1bn of that in the fast food sector alone), and growing at the rate of 15% a year.
Such facts not only expose the absurd prejudice against Islamic food, but further show the hollowness of Sarkozy’s entire national identity debate. To continue the culinary metaphor, it’s less than half-baked – and deeply distasteful.