Last week, by chance, I watched a video from the site AKADEM, the French cultural site on all things Jewish (November 20, 2013). Claude Askolovitch, a self-identified progressive Jewish journalist, explained that he was let go from his job as a journalist at Le Point because of an article he wrote defending halal slaughter in France. I was intrigued and continued watching. On the video, he mused about the causes of hatred toward Muslims in contemporary France and asked why both the Front National, a right wing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic political party, and the Socialists have difficult relations with French Muslims. He then presented the story of how the Front National has been taken seriously and has, in his words, become “the thinking norm.”
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, started a polemic about halal meat two years ago. She claimed that 45 percent of the meat eaten in France is halal and that halal slaughtering is inhumane. She also asserted that the French are eating it unknowingly and that it is unhealthy for the French population as a whole. Her outrageous statements culminated in a wild pseudo-scientific scenario in which the contents of a dead animal’s stomach are spewed onto the meat while the throat of the animal is ritually cut. This ritual way of slaughtering would pour the stomach bacteria over the meat and render it pathogenic.
This strong, vivid image made me think of my parents whispering that Arabs tend to kill their enemies by cutting their throats. When I was a child in Paris during the most difficult months of the OAS[i] retaliation in the city, an Algerian man was assassinated below my apartment. I can still see in my mind’s eye the chalk contour of his body form on the pavement when I went to school the next morning. The image of cutting someone’s throat was seared into my childhood as the “Arab way of killing.”
Is there something reminiscent of this primal fear in the antipathy to halal slaughtering? Is slaughtering an animal by cutting its throat somehow symbolically linked to the fear of being a human victim of that knife? Madame le Pen has also asserted that Muslims effectively reject the “real French,” as they believe that halal meat touched by a non-Muslim becomes non-halal, and thus no longer edible by a Muslim. The news media erupted after her claims, explained Askolovitch, and many publications reproduced them without checking their veracity.
Askolovitch, a journalist, did exactly that; he researched the facts and proved that these stories reported all over the media were completely erroneous.[ii] The percentage of animals slaughtered in Ile de France was no more than 2 percent. Furthermore, there is certainly no scientific evidence that the meat is unhealthy because of the way the animals are slaughtered. Le Pen’s claim that halal meat is rendered non-halal by virtue of being touched by a non-Muslim is simply hate mongering.
In her claims regarding halal, Le Pen points to what she thinks is the main problem with the Muslims: they separate themselves, eat differently, and do not drink as the French do. France is not the only place in Europe where halal and kosher slaughter are under attack as inhumane, because stunning the animal prior to ritual slaughter is unacceptable to Muslims and Jews who eat halal and kosher.
Askolovitch develops a thesis surrounding the problem of secularity in France and the inability to include religious others into the Republique. He begins by telling his audience that Alain Finkelkraut, the French Jewish philosopher, just observed that he is not really completely French and the only “real” French are the “Francais de souche.” The word souche (lit: root) has connotations of ancestry and land, which takes us back to 19th-century nationalism and blood.
As I was listening to this story, I was reminded of my own adolescent feelings that as a Jew I would never “really” belong to France. I loved the Republique, but she did do not love me back! I left France to find my place in a Jewish land and then, as many Jews before me, in the goldene medinah,[iii] the United States. I am still longing for what could have been, if I had felt loved by the Republique of my childhood. Does the Republique today behave toward its Muslims as it did to its Jews?
Rahel Wasserfall is Director of Evaluation and Training at CEDAR and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.
[i] The OAS (organization de l’ armée secrete) was a counterterrorist part of the French army that refused to let go of Algeria, they were active from 1954 to 1962. Its motto was “L’Algérie est francaise et le restera” Algeria is French and will remain so.
[ii] Claude Askolovitch, Nos mals-aimes: Ces musulmans dont la France ne veut pas. September 2013, Editions Grasset.
[iii]Yiddish; literally the “golden country.”