Burqas? No, bacon burgers are France's new cultural battleground

After fights over burqas and Muslim-rights and France's national identity, French politicians are taking on the burger. Because it's a symbol of American imperialism? Mais non! A French fast-food chain is dishing up a pork-free halal sandwich.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A woman walks past a Quick restaurant in Roubaix northern France Thursday. Quick's decision to serve only halal meat in eight restaurants with a strong Muslim clientele has sparked a wave of criticism from politicians decrying the step as unacceptable.

In eight of 362 Quick burger joints in France they’ve gone pork-less.

The "offending" Quick outlets (three are in Paris suburbs) are located in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods, in an apparent concession to a $1.3 billion halal (meaning ‘legal’ under Islamic law) food industry. While French Muslims didn’t ask for pork-free fast-food at Quick, they are appreciative of them, if sales are a sign.

Yet in a French election year where the burqa, or full length Muslim veil, is portrayed as a non-French symbol – the inalienable right to order a bacon burger is a new battleground.

The battle cry is not yet iberté, égalité, fraternité et porc! – one French mayor, the secretary general of the ruling political party, a government spokesperson, and Marine Le Pen, vice president of the anti-immigrant National Front, are all seeking to make the eight halal Quicks an example of the adulteration of French identity and principles ahead of March 14 regional elections.

A pork-less Quick – similiar to a kosher McDonald's or Burger King – means those who take both their kids and the Koran seriously can go to a popular fast food restaurant and not have to order only the fish.

Still, to many Frenchmen, a halal Quick seems odd and perhaps not quite right in a society where religion should not stand out in ordinary life, under the strictly secular principles of laicite, or separation of church and state. As with the burqa question, support for secular France are found on the socialist left and strongly on the right, as well.

Outside the eight Quick restaurants are signs that say, “No Strong Bacon Burger,” a reference to a popular sandwich on the menu. The signs and the halal experiment date to last November, in a chain that is France’s homegrown rival to the Golden Arches.

Criticism from French left and right

The socialist mayor of Roubaix, Rene Vandierendonck, filed a court complaint, has appealed to an anti-discrimination agency, and is supported by a ruling party member of the French assembly from Marseilles.

The basis of his challenge? Exclusion. Quick customers should be able to order what is on the menu at other Quick venues in France. As Mr. Vandierendonck says, “it becomes discrimination if the exclusivity of the offer is focused on a single product."

Luc Chatel, the Sarkozy government spokesman in Paris, said he opposed halal Quicks since they supported “communitarianism” – a French term for identifying with a particular ethnic or religious group rather than egalitarian principles of the republic.

Ms. Le Pen, a nationalist politician campaigning ahead of the March election, let loose with her own salvo (inaccurately, it turns out), saying that anyone who buys a burger from one of these eight Quicks would be effectively pay a tax to the Islamic group that certifies the menu as halal.

Al-Kanz.org, a Muslim consumer website, shot back, saying that irrespective of the merits of the case, Muslims were being unfairly targeted: "Would there have been as many media reactions if, instead of halal, Quick had chosen another niche, like bio [or organic whole foods]? Would a theme Quick with only Mexican or Chinese menus get such media reaction? No, of course not.”

Try the smoked turkey

In a statement issued Thursday, Quick France says the decision to go pork-less “is not religious” and notes that the eight restaurants are not authentically halal, since beer is also served there. In the eight, smoked turkey is substituted for bacon in what would ordinarily be a bacon burger.

Kentucky Fried Chicken already sells halal chicken in France, though does so with no advertising. In 2002, a Paris suburban branch of the supermarket giant Franprix, decided to go halal and not sell pork or alcohol. The socialist mayor also protested and shut down the Franprix branch on grounds of unclear hygienic standards – only to have his decision overturned by a court.

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