Washington Post - By Edward Cody - PARIS - In a bitterly divisive presidential election campaign, France is once again torn by an uncomfortable struggle over the place of Muslims in a society pledged to secularism but deeply rooted in Christianity.
After a disputed law to ban full-face Muslim veils, the latest chapter in the long-running drama has flared over non-Muslims who might unknowingly eat halal meat, or meat from animals slaughtered according to Islamic tradition. As with the veil debate, the concern over slaughtering practices reflects a widely shared irritation against the growing number of Muslims who defy France’s traditional majority by insisting on their own customs and dress codes.
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The confrontation between traditional Muslim ways and Europe’s Christian heritage has erupted in several European countries as the number of Muslims increases across the continent because of continuing immigration and the customary large families of Muslim immigrants.
But it is particularly raw in France. This is true in part because it has emerged as an issue in the election campaign. But it is also because, with Europe’s largest Muslim population, France has a number of urban and suburban areas where Muslims are a majority and find it easy to live according to their traditions without seeking to integrate into French society.
The number of Muslims in France has never been established scientifically because it is illegal here to ask people to identify themselves by race or religion. The Interior Ministry, backed by academic researchers, estimates the number of those born into Muslim families at more than 5 million. But some Muslim leaders have suggested that illegal immigrants are undercounted and the real tally is closer to 6 million, although many of them do not practice their faith.
Tension on the table
The spark for the latest round of invective was a claim by Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate of the far-right National Front, that all the meat consumed by Parisians is halal and that millions of French people are consuming halal meat without knowing it.
President Nicolas Sarkozy at first dismissed the claim as nonsense, and butchers agreed. But sensing a campaign issue worth hammering on, he then called Saturday for labels on all meat describing how the animals were slaughtered. A recent poll said halal meat was the No. 1 worry of the French people, he told reporters while explaining his shift.
Sarkozy’s main adversary, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, accused the president of banging on Muslims to gain National Front votes and called for “restraint.” Hollande said the only real concern should be that animals are slaughtered in humane and sanitary conditions and promised to make sure that is the case “in cooperation with the professionals.”
Against that background, Interior Minister Claude Gueant, a key Sarkozy lieutenant, declared that non-French Muslim residents, if they are allowed to vote in local elections as proposed by Hollande, could gain a majority in town councils and impose halal meat in school cafeterias. His warning, repeated several times, was denounced as a scare tactic by Hollande’s campaign and repudiated even by some Sarkozy supporters.