When halal butcher Lahcen Hakki went to stock up at Paris’ main meat market last month, he was surprised to run into Nicolas Sarkozy and quickly managed to snag a photo alongside the French leader.
Sarkozy, who was campaigning for re-election, had latched onto the issue of halal meat -- meat slaughtered according to Islamic tradition -- and turned it into a topic that for a few frenzied days had dominated the election debate.
The president’s far-right rival Marine Le Pen had claimed, falsely it turned out, that all meat in Paris shops is halal, stirring up suspicions in France’s longstanding and sometimes bitter debate about cultural immigration.
Hakki was resigned to the issue cropping up.
In his view, halal slaughter causes debate every time there is an election, only to be forgotten once the results are in, and his customers in the northern Paris suburb of Pantin agree that it is an artificial issue.
But Hakki’s own experience -- and the changing demographics of the meat industry -- illustrates the growing importance of the halal sector in France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community.
When Hakki, 33 and Moroccan-born, opened his shop in October 2011, he took over from the town’s last remaining non-ritual butcher, Yves Beguin, who before retiring had searched in vain for a traditional butcher to succeed him.
But, faced with the reality that fewer native French youths are willing to enter a trade marked by long hours and early mornings, Beguin wound up passing the reins on to one of many halal butchers eager to fill the void.
Pantin is now without a traditional butcher and, while many of Beguin’s former customers have happily transitioned over to halal meat, those who don’t eat it out of habit or preference are feeling the loss.
“We had a farewell party and they really cried,” said Beguin, who now lives in retirement in the countryside but always drops in on Hakki when he is in town. “They said, ‘Where will we go?’”
Halal meat first entered the election debate on February 18, when Le Pen claimed that all meat in the Paris region is prepared according to Islamic methods and is not labeled as such, misleading non-Muslim customers.
Officials later confirmed that, while the Paris region abattoirs mostly supply local Muslim butchers, the majority of the meat consumed in the area comes from outside the region and is neither kosher nor halal.
While Sarkozy initially slammed Le Pen and said she had started a “false controversy,” he later reignited the debate, in what some called pandering to anti-immigration voters ahead of next month’s presidential election.
The debate is typical of a country that has for years debated how far it is willing to accommodate Islam, and Prime Minister Francois Fillon raised the stakes by suggesting Muslim and Jewish butchers abandon “outdated methods”.
Like Jewish kosher slaughter, the halal method requires the abattoir to kill the animal by slitting its throat. In French halal the beast is not stunned first -- as is done in non-ritual abattoirs -- to lessen its ordeal.
In Pantin, residents can still get non-ritual meat at a market held three times a week, at supermarkets or in nearby Paris proper, but they no longer have the convenience of a local butcher -- unless they eat halal.
Hakki estimates that only about 30 percent of his clientele is Muslim, and that the rest pay no attention to whether the meat is halal or not, despite Sarkozy’s claim that halal meat is the number one campaign topic.
Hakki’s non-Muslim customers say they can’t tell the difference in taste between halal and non-halal and admit that neither slaughter method is particularly kind to animals.
One local musician stopped by Thursday for a couple of sirloin steaks to eat with his pregnant wife and said he was more concerned with the color and look of the meat and that it comes from a neighborhood butcher.
“If we buy everything at the supermarket, there will no longer be any local shopkeepers,” said 30-year-old Fabien Girard. “And a neighborhood without small shops is a little dead.”
The economics of food is one reason why traditional butchers have vanished from Pantin, according to the town’s long-time Socialist mayor, Bertrand Kern.
“We are a working-class town that has been hard-hit by the crisis,” he said, pointing out that Pantin never had a fishmonger because of the cost of seafood.
The price, along with immigrant demand for halal meat and the increasing difficulty of finding French youth interested in becoming butchers, leads Kern to doubt Pantin will have another traditional butchers anytime soon.
For Hakki it is out of the question to carry non-halal meat in his shop, as his religion forbids it and because it would drive away his Muslim clientele.
“If I do halal and non-halal, the Muslims will see that this side here is non-halal and they won’t shop here anymore,” said Hakki.