French president Nicolas Sarkozy's call for labelling meat from animals slaughtered in line with religious rules has sparked outrage among France's Muslim and Jewish leaders, who say it would stigmatize their communities - writes Michael J. Strauss.
Sarkozy, a right-wing candidate for re-election, urged the mandatory labeling as concerns about immigration from North Africa took centre stage as a campaign issue ahead of the two-stage vote in April and May 2012. Opponents of immigration claim it is changing France's cultural values.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon first added to the controversy by urging modern religions to reconsider the relevance of "ancestral traditions," and later sought to defuse it by meeting with French religious leaders.
Sarkozy, too, backpedaled to call for voluntary labeling of all ritual-slaughter meat. At present, the labeling only appears on meat sold where Muslim or Jewish populations are concentrated.
The issue was sparked by a false claim from extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen that all of the meat sold in Paris was halal. Sarkozy initially did not react, then explained his call for labeling meat from religious slaughters came after getting information that "the main subject of concern among the French is this question of halal meat."
Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, director of a national research laboratory for political communication, said Sarkozy's call could siphon some right-wing votes away from Le Pen.
"The extreme right wants to talk about immigration. The problem is how to talk about it without seeming racist. If you talk about halal meat, that's perfect -- it's about eating," she told ENI News.
"It's a good way to take some votes from the Front National (the extreme-right party) because he needs their support to win, but he must not alienate the centrists," she added. "I'm surprised the theme worked so well. It became a very important issue very quickly."
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has called the debate irrelevant.
Political commentators doubt the issue of labelling will remain prominent by the time the election is held, but noted that the longer it is highlighted in the French press ,the more it can play a role in how people vote.
France's Muslim population is estimated at 5-6 million and accounts for between 8-10 per cent of the population. The Jewish community is estimated at 250,000-500,000, or 0.4 to 0.8 per cent.
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]