ROME, Italy — As he fights to overcome a poll deficit ahead of April's election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has found an issue he can sink his teeth into: halal meat.
The president hit back Tuesday against claims by his far-right rival Marine Le Pen that pandering to Muslim immigrants has meant that all the meat consumed in Paris is now produced according to Islam's halal dietary laws.
Her comments have revived issues of immigration, Islam and France's cultural identity in the election campaign. Le Pen's National Front party has made defending French traditions against the influence of Islam a central policy.
“There are always people who want to get noticed by provoking a controversy on the backs of working people who have won the trust of the consumers,” Sarkozy said of Le Pen, as he met with butchers in the world's largest wholesale food market in Paris.
He accused his rival of lying to win votes at the expense of the reputation of France's butchers and slaughterhouses – potent stuff in a country where food producers are often treated with reverence.
Le Pen launched the controversy over the weekend.
“It turns out that all the meat distributed in the Paris region, is halal,” Le Pen told reporters. “Consumers are not told that. It's really a deception and the government has been aware of it for months … this shows that the French are treated with contempt in their own country.”
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She said halal slaughter methods, which involve the slitting of animals' throats, were distasteful to many French people, but said abattoirs were forced to switch to such practices to cater to Muslims, who are estimated to make up 5 to 10 percent of France's population.
With Le Pen running third in opinion polls at 17 percent, behind Sarkozy at 27 percent and the Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande at 29 percent, the president moved swiftly to counter her claims.
He insisted only 2.5 percent of meat consumed the Paris region is produced according to religious dietary laws, which include Islamic and Jewish stipulations.
According to local industry associations quoted by the TFI television network, three of the four slaughterhouses situated in the the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris do slaughter all their animals using halal procedures. However, the network said local abattoirs provide just 2 percent of meat consumed in Paris and the surrounding region, while the vast majority originates in slaughterhouses further afield that do not practice halal methods.