Sun, Apr 04, 2010 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE : French halal market booms despite political unease

AFP , PARIS

Halal foie gras, non-alcoholic champagne, sauerkaut garnished with pork-free sausages: Muslim-friendly food is moving away from its immigrant roots and merging with mainstream French tradition.

While the fine wine and gourmet food exports that underpin the French food industry have been hit hard by the global crisis, the halal niche market has been growing fast.

The boom went largely unnoticed until a hamburger chain tried a halal menu in some of its restaurants, sparking charges of communautarisme — a term roughly meaning “ghettoization.” which grates against the French insistence on integration.

The growth of halal products is largely thanks to young descendants of Arab and African migrants, who want to enjoy the same culinary diversity as their non-Muslim French neighbors while remaining true to their cultural roots.

“It’s mostly driven by the second and third generations,” said Antoine Bonnel, director of the Paris Halal trade show held this week.

“It’s not a case of the Muslim community withdrawing into itself, but rather one of integration, since they want to be able to buy halal sauerkraut or spring rolls,” he said.

Bonnel was referring to the increasing number of Muslims joining the French middle classes and expanding their culinary horizons, a trend that has even spawned a new term — beurgeois, a slightly ironic mix of “bourgeois,” or middle class, and beur, slang for North African.

French sales of halal food are forecast to hit 5.5 billion euros (US$7.42 billion) this year and move “from the ethnic market to the mass market,” Bonnel said.

The word halal — meaning “lawful” in Arabic — applies to food that has been prepared according to the prescriptions of the Koran.

Islamic law requires meat to be slaughtered under religious supervision and forbids the consumption of pork and alcohol.

The halal market, targeting France’s estimated 5 million-strong Muslim population, has obvious attractions for retailers and restaurateurs, and market researchers say it is growing rapidly.

Supermarket chain Casino has created a halal brand, Wassila, and fast food chain Quick is trying out a halal menu in eight of its 350 burger joints.

However, the increased presence of halal in French life has raised some hackles in this staunchly secular country.

Several politicians from both right and left have complained that providing halal options will divide French society rather than help welcome Muslims into the culinary mainstream.

Quick’s introduction of halal options in some areas with Muslim populations was attacked by a mayor from the opposition Socialist party, who threatened legal action, and by members of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing UMP party.

“I am not in favor of anything that smacks of communitarianism,” UMP party leader Xavier Bertrand said.

No one at the Halal Expo agreed with their concerns.

“There are already kosher products and sections for world foods in the supermarkets — why not halal?” asked Anisa Bouarbi of Paris Hallal, a firm which lists restaurants online for a young audience.

Around her in the exhibition hall, the products on show seemed to support the view that the burgeoning market is encouraging Muslims to eat and drink the same products as other French people, just in halal form.

Halal is also providing fresh business for French businesses.

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