• The halal issue is about more than just meat.

A French television documentary has revealed that all of the slaughterhouses in the greater Paris metropolitan area are now producing all of their meat in accordance with Islamic Sharia law.

The exposé broadcast by France 2 television also alleged that much of the religiously slaughtered meat known as halal is not labeled as such and is entering the general food chain, where it is being unwittingly consumed by the non-Muslim population.

The revelation has sparked political controversy in France, where Islam and the question of Muslim immigration has become a central issue in the presidential campaign.

Halal, which in Arabic means lawful or legal, is a term designating any object or action that is permissible according to Sharia law. In the context of food, halal meat is derived from animals slaughtered by hand according to methods stipulated in Islamic religious texts.

One such halal method, called dhabihah, consists of making a swift, deep incision with a sharp knife on the neck that cuts the jugular vein, leaving the animal to bleed to death. Much of the controversy involving halal stems from the fact that Sharia law bans the practice of stunning the animals before they are slaughtered. Pre-slaughter stunning renders the animals unconscious and thus is said to lessen pain.

Not surprisingly, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has turned the halal controversy into a campaign issue. Speaking to supporters at a February 18-19 congress of her National Front party in the northern city of Lille, Le Pen said: "All the abattoirs in the Paris region sell halal meat without exception. They have succumbed to the rules of a minority. We have reason to be disgusted."

Le Pen added: "This situation is a real deception and the government has been fully aware of this situation for months." She then accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy of bowing down to "Islamic radicals."

Sarkozy responded by saying that Le Pen had her facts wrong. Although the slaughterhouses in Paris do in fact slaughter all of their animals according to halal methods, local abattoirs provide only a relatively small amount of the meat consumed in the capital. Sarkozy said that most of the meat consumed in Paris originates in slaughterhouses located in other parts of France that do not necessarily follow halal procedures.

While Sarkozy may be right on the details, Le Pen has seized on an issue that resonates with millions of French voters.

According to the France2 documentary, French slaughterhouses produce far more halal meat than is needed to serve the estimated six million Muslims who live in France. The documentary reported that roughly 30% of all the meat produced in France is halal, while the Muslim population in France comprises approximately 7% of the total French population.

To avoid the costs associated with running separate production lines for halal and non-halal customers, French slaughterhouses are selling the remaining 23% of halal meat as non-halal. As a result, a significant amount of the meat being sold in French grocery stores is actually unlabeled halal and, according to France2 television, French consumers are being tricked into buying products they normally would not eat.

Halal is big business in France, which has the largest Muslim population in the European Union. The halal food market in France has more than doubled over the past five years and is now valued at €5.5 billion ($7 billion). The sector is now more than twice as large as that for organic foods and industry experts expect the demand for halal to grow at more than 20% annually.

Around 85% of the halal market in France involves fresh meat sold by halal butchers. But in recent years, the fastest-growing niche in France's halal food sector has been halal-certified cold cuts, sauces, soups, ready-made dishes, baby foods and other processed food products. Halal meat is also proliferating on menus of schools, hospitals and company cafeterias across France.

Not everyone is comfortable with what some say is the stealth Islamization of the French food chain.

After the Franco-Belgian fast-food chain, Quick, removed bacon burgers from its menu and replaced them with a version using halal beef and a slice of smoked turkey, René Vandierendonck, the socialist mayor of the northern French city of Roubaix, said the move amounted to discrimination against non-Muslim customers.

Vandierendonck filed charges with justice authorities against Quick for what he said is prejudicial religious catering. He also lodged a complaint with France's main anti-discrimination authority on the matter. Marine Le Pen said Quick's halal option is "an Islamic tax" on diners.

Xavier Bertrand, secretary general of the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) said that Quick's menu change is undermining France's secular, integrationist social model.

As Muslim values increasingly influence French public policy, the halal issue is about more than just meat; it is also about ideology. Some analysts say halal is a tool that the Muslim minority is using to impose aspects of Sharia law on the non-Muslim majority in France and other European countries. Others say halal is being used by Islamic leaders as a vehicle to prevent the integration of Muslim immigrants in the West.

According to a major new study on the rise of Islam in French cities, halal is increasingly being used to assert a separate Muslim identity. The 2,200-page report titled "Banlieue de la République" (["Suburbs of the Republic"] is the result of a one-year research effort into the four "I's" that comprise the heart of the debate over French national identity: Islam, immigration, identity and insecurity.

The report was commissioned by the influential French think-tank L'Institut Montaigne, and directed by Gilles Kepel, a well-known specialist on the Muslim world, together with five other French researchers.

The authors of the study were especially taken aback by the explosion of the halal market in France in recent years and they point out that the contemporary meaning of the term halal has been greatly expanded in its definition.

According to the report, the survey question "do you respect halal?" highlights the "complexity of different meanings of the word, which in its most restrictive sense means only the dimension of the forbidden food, but may also include a code of conduct, standards and an expression of dominant values, separating the 'halal' from 'haram,' the lawful or unlawful in many aspects of society."

The report continues: "One of the major transformations in France in a quarter century is the ubiquity of halal, which can no longer be reduced to the already thorny business of school lunches. Halal goes far beyond meat and deeply touches the flesh. Halal involves complex benchmarks to define the legal and illegal. These laws are dynamic and are linked to social control and moral order."

The report concludes: "This explosion of halal is one of the most significant phenomena in the transformation and identity affirmation of Islam in France in the first decade of the 21st century."

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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