In France, far-right politics and anti-Muslim mudslinging have crept onto center stage, ahead of next month's presidential election. France may be in the midst of an economic crisis, but it is halal meat that has become the unlikely and controversial focus of the campaign, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It all began when National Front party presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said that non-Muslims in Paris were unwittingly eating halal meat.


UNKNOWN WOMAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Her comments came a few days after a television expose on the French meat industry. The report, on popular investigative show "Envoye Special," focused on sanitary conditions at France's 275 slaughterhouses. But it also delved into the issue of ritual slaughter. Though a European law mandates that animals be stunned unconscious before being killed, there is an exception for religious slaughter, where the animal's throat is slit while it's still conscious.

The television documentary reported that most abattoirs around Paris practice only halal slaughter methods because it's too expensive to do both, and they don't want to miss out on the large Muslim market in and around the French capital.


JACQUES PIERRE: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: This traditional French butcher in the documentary, Jacques Pierre, explains that he doesn't tell his customers that they're eating halal meat. We have to lie to them, he says. We have no choice.

Marine Le Pen says French customs are being crushed by an invading immigrant force.

MARINE LE PEN: (Through Translator) I have the right as a citizen to know if I'm buying meat where the animal is slaughtered in horrible cruelty - taking, sometimes, 15 minutes to die. This is a moral point. Don't French people who don't want to eat halal have the same rights as Muslims who do?

BEARDSLEY: At the Oasis halal meat shop in this largely immigrant neighborhood in the north of Paris, four butchers stand behind the counter, waiting on a line of customers. The butchers say every time there's an election, Muslims are stigmatized, whether it's halal meat or headscarves.

Buying lamp chops, French-Algerian Karim Benhadada says he's long stopped paying attention to Marine La Pen and the National Front Party.

KARIM BENHADADA: (Through Translator) The latest debate has nothing to do with halal meat. It's that their hearts are full of hatred towards us.

BEARDSLEY: Outside his office in central Paris, Jean Yves Camus, expert on the far right with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, says the issue of eating halal - or not - is of no particular interest to most French people.

JEAN YVES CAMUS: Well, in fact, it's not really a debate within the French population at all. The only thing the average Frenchman is aware, is that Muslims eat a kind of meat which is not the same as the one he eats. But he only cares about the price of the meat.

BEARDSLEY: It all might have fizzled out. But President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is trailing socialist front-runner Francois Hollande, is desperate to attract voters from the far right. Not to be outdone by Le Pen, Sarkozy called for stricter meat labeling, and reiterated his position that serving halal meat in school cafeterias was a contradiction of French secular values. Then, Sarkozy's prime minister really stuck his foot in it.

FRANCOIS FILLON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Speaking on Europe 1 Radio, Francois Fillon suggested that Muslim and Jewish ancestral ritual slaughter traditions were outdated. Fillon said, religions should think about continuing to keep traditions that don't have much in common with today's state of science or hygiene.

His comments brought French Muslims and Jews together in a rare show of unity. The gaffe may also have alienated some French Jews, who have long supported Sarkozy. Fillon has been meeting with rabbis and imams, scrambling to repair the damage.

Camus says the debate shows the battle for the French presidency is being waged on the far right.

CAMUS: If you want to be a real leader of the right, you have - at one point - to take away those voters from the National Front and drag them into your own party, which is the UMP, Sarkozy's party.

BEARDSLEY: This time around, Camus says, Sarkozy has failed to attract those voters. And his leap into the ritual slaughter debate shows just how desperate he is, less than two months away from the presidential election.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.


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