In France’s election, a meaty issue unites Jews and Muslims
Paris – As she cooks lunch and talks politics, Sarah Gutmann has a nasty feeling – of would-be French president Marine Le Pen invading the privacy of her home and meddling with her Jewish faith and the plates of chicken and kosher sausages that she is frying for her husband and their eldest son.
That’s because the far-right candidate wants to outlaw ritual slaughter if she’s elected next Sunday. And that could directly impact how Gutmann feeds her family and exercises her religious freedom. She and her husband, Benjamin, say they would have to think about leaving France if a far-right government interfered with observant Jews’ kosher diets. Their fear is that under Le Pen, targeting ritually slaughtered meats could be just the start of steps to make French Jews and Muslims feel unwelcome.
“Attacking the way we eat impinges on our privacy and that is very serious,” Gutmann said as she busied herself in the kitchen of their Paris home.
“The intention is to target minority populations that bother her and send a message to voters who are against these minorities: ’Vote for me, because I will attack them and perhaps, with time, make them leave.’”
Muslim shopper Hayat Ettabet said her family might be forced to illegally slaughter at home to stay within their religious rules, bleeding out animals “in the bathroom, back to the way it was.”
Le Pen says all animals should be stunned before slaughter, and frames the issue as one of animal welfare. That’s unacceptable to observant Jews and Muslims who believe stunning causes unnecessary animal suffering and that their ritual slaughters for kosher and halal meats are more humane.
With the largest populations of Muslims and Jews in western Europe, the issue has major potential repercussions for France and could hit communities elsewhere that buy French meat exports. The issue is one of the many fault lines between Le Pen and incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and the starkly different visions of France they are presenting for next Sunday’s election runoff vote. It is expected to be far closer than in 2017, when the centrist Macron beat Le Pen by a landslide.
“We have never been so close to having an extreme-right regime,” Gutmann said. “The alarm bell is ringing.”
Le Pen’s France would be more inwardly focused, with far fewer immigrants and fewer rights for those already here, less tolerance for non-Christian traditions, and less tightly bound to the European Union and the outside world.
Macron is largely promising the opposite as he seeks a second five-year term. Macron zeroed in on Le Pen’s proposals for ending slaughter without stunning to emphasize their political differences. He said he doesn’t want “a France that prevents Muslims or Jews from eating as their religion prescribes.”
Le Pen says she doesn’t want that either. But alarmed Jews and Muslims find her hard to believe. Le Pen is not opposed to other practices deemed cruel by animal welfare campaigners, such as bullfighting or – most notably – hunting, a tradition deeply anchored in rural France where she is trawling for votes. So her focus on kosher and halal meats smacks of hypocrisy to Jews and Muslims who see an attack disguised as animal welfare.
Le Pen says the meats could instead be imported. But that also makes no sense to critics, because it seems to run counter to Le Pen’s general France-first rule that the country should produce more things itself and import less.
Her camp has also flip-flopped. Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s No. 2 who is heading their National Rally party while she seeks the presidency, said in March that they want an outright ban on kosher and halal meats, both imported and from domestically slaughtered animals.
Jewish leaders responded in a statement that the “detestable” proposition would force large numbers of Jews and Muslims to leave.
But Le Pen and Macron are both now modulating their positions on issues important to voters who didn’t support them in round one of the election, seeking to amass the votes they will need to win round two. Macron, most notably, has softened his plan to increase the retirement age to 65. Le Pen is trying to appear more inclusive.
“I’m not at all going to get rid of halal and kosher butcher shops,” she said this week. She said meat from animals that have been knocked out electrically might prove to be an acceptable halal alternative to some Muslims. But if not, “importing this meat would be authorized, obviously.”
“What we want is to truly stop this animal suffering, very intense, that is the consequence of slaughter without stunning,” Le Pen said.
Slovenia, Denmark and Sweden, as well as non-EU members Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, have done away with religious exemptions, meaning kosher and halal meat must be imported. So, too, have the Flanders and Wallonia regions of Belgium. The bans there are being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights by Yohan Benizri, a vice president of the European Jewish Congress.
He says outlawing religious slaughter makes Jews feel “we’re not part of European culture” and “portrays us as some form of savages.”
Because France exports kosher meats, banning its production “will have a devastating effect” on Jewish communities elsewhere, he said.
“It’s going to be a devastating signal as well because – again – we would be seen as not welcome in the European Union,” Benizri said.
As her son finished lunch, Sarah Gutmann said the most worrying aspect of a Le Pen-pushed law on the issue would be if it was met by general indifference.
“Then, really, I will be very, very scared,” she said. “If I see an unjust law go through and no one reacts, then we’ll say to ourselves that we really are in danger.”
Associated Press journalists Nicolas Garriga in Paris and Elaine Ganley in Vernon, France, contributed.