France’s Foolish Idea About Hamburgers

Michel Spingler/AP
People walk past a Quick restaurant, which serves hamburgers in Roubaix, northern France.

After having written about “Germany’s Foolish Idea,” I see that the French are not immune either. This time about hambugers.

First, I apologize to the many French (and Germans) who do not share their governments’ ideas or agree with their policies. It has, unfortunately, become a habit in journalism and even in the professional writing of historians to refer to actions by states as if “France or Germany did this or that.” More correctly, we should say the “French or German government did this or said that.”

This is not just a semantic issue. It goes to the root of a major ideological problem: the confusion between society and the state.

The Financial Times reports that many French politicians are upset about a private restaurant chain, “Quick,” deciding to serve exclusively halal beef-burgers in a few of its stores to attract Muslim customers. (Halal refers to food that is “lawful” according to Islamic law. There are restrictions on the kind of food, the method of slaughtering the animals, and the processes of food preparation.)

Now the French public is being told that this is inconsistent with France’s secular traditions.

I could not believe my eyes when I read this. But French society is so politicized (shall we say “governmentalized”) that the distinction between state and private action is almost absent.

Some are arguing that Quick should sell both halal and non-halal food. Wouldn’t that be in the spirit of French secularity? I have no idea. But it is certainly in the spirit of ignorance of the nature of the problem.

Halal food must be protected from contact with non-halal food. The equipment used to cook the burgers must be separate. There is a cost issue. In addition, if both kinds of food are available many Muslims will worry that the two will get mixed up. So there is also a credibility issue.

There are many good reasons that the state should be secular in its outlook and promulgation of laws, especially in an increasingly diverse society. But society is more than the state.

A “Great Society” does not require us all to agree on values and the ends we pursue. As such, it must have a variety of institutions and specific organizations which favor some values and discriminate against other values.

The market is the pre-eminent pluralistic institution. It enables Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and Atheist to live in harmony with each other because each individual in these groups can engage in voluntary trades with willing partners. We cannot, however, trade with everyone at once. Specialization and cost-efficiencies mean that sometimes people will have to go elsewhere to get what they want.

Even more fundamentally, private property involves the right of private individuals to make decisions about resource use. And since some uses are incompatible with others, private property must imply the right to exclude. We cannot provide everything to everyone at every location at every moment.

Therefore, let Muslims in France have their halal-only establishments. I am sorry if the Frenchman who wants to eat only non-halal food might have to cross the street or cook at home. Is freedom not worth even the slightest inconvenience?

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