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France’s Fillon Meets With Religious Leaders Over Food Dispute

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon began meetings with Jewish and Muslim leaders today to diffuse a dispute about religious dietary codes that has threatened to dominate France’s presidential elections.

In a direct reference to Kosher and Halal practices of preparing meat, Fillon said in a radio interview March 5 that “religions should reflect on dietary rules that don’t have much to do with the modern state of science, technology and sanitation.”

Animals killed under Halal and Kosher rules aren’t stunned before being slaughtered, unlike the usual practice in France.

Fillon’s comments followed statements by both supporters and opponents of President Nicolas Sarkozy that have made Halal meat a dominant election issue this week, even as unemployment hovers near 10 percent and Greece is in talks with creditors to avoid a default. The first round of France’s presidential vote is April 22, with Sarkozy trailing Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in polls.

Questions about Halal meat took up 30 minutes of a 50 minute press conference yesterday by Sarkozy’s campaign spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who said the reaction to Fillon’s comments was disproportionate.

“The government is particularly attentive to the respect of secularism and to the respect for religion,” government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said at a press conference today. “Fillon’s meetings will express the respect that is due all religions. The Halal issue is closed.”

Chief Rabbi

Fillon met today with Gilles Bernheim, the chief Rabbi of France, and Joel Mergui, head of France’s Jewish Consistory, a body set up under Napoleon two centuries ago to organize Jewish religious practices in France. He’ll meet tomorrow with the head of the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, and Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, France’s largest Muslim organization.

“He explained that nothing he said should put into question the continuation of the ritual slaughter of animals in France,” Mergui said after the meeting. “We don’t want this issue to be a hostage to the election.”

The Halal issue first arose last month when anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen claimed most of the meat consumed in Paris was Halal meat, and that many non-Muslims were eating Halal meat without knowing it. Butchers’ groups denied the claim.

Halal Meat Labels

Interior Minister Claude Gueant then said several times last week that foreigners should be denied the vote in local elections because the city councils they elect might impose Halal meat in school cafeterias. Sarkozy then suggested last weekend that all meat on sale in France carry labels saying whether it was prepared under religious guidelines.

Bernheim says he’s opposed to labeling, which would stigmatize kosher meat and render more expensive what he called a religious obligation.

Hollande said during a campaign visit near Paris yesterday that Sarkozy should show “restraint” on the issue. Some of Sarkozy’s allies have also distanced themselves. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on March 5 that Halal “is a false problem” and “clashes of civilizations are not my cup of tea.”

France has both Western Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations. “We realize that Jews aren’t the target, but we have become collateral damage,” Bernheim said. “The target is a certain strain of Islam that scares some people.”

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