Jews and Muslims in France worry about election promise to end religious animal slaughter

PARIS (AP) — As she cooks lunch and talks politics, Sarah Gutmann has a bad feeling — of future French President Marine Le Pen invading the privacy of her home and meddling with her Jewish faith and plates of kosher chicken and sausages which she fried for her husband and their eldest son.

That’s because the far-right candidate wants to ban ritual slaughter if elected next Sunday. And it could have a direct impact on how Gutmann feeds his family and exercises his religious freedom. She and her husband, Benjamin, say they should consider leaving France if a far-right government interferes with the kosher diets of observant Jews. They fear that under Le Pen, targeting ritually slaughtered meats is just the beginning of measures to make French Jews and Muslims feel unwanted.

“Attacking the way we eat infringes on our privacy and that’s very serious,” Gutmann said as she busied herself in the kitchen of their Paris home.

“The intention is to target minority populations that bother them and send a message to voters who are against those minorities: ‘Vote for me, because I will attack them and perhaps, in time, drive them away. ‘”

Muslim customer Hayat Ettabet said her family could be forced to slaughter illegally at home to follow their religious rules, bleeding the animals “in the bathroom, just like before”.

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Le Pen says all animals should be stunned before slaughter, and frames the issue as an animal welfare issue. This is unacceptable to observant Jews and Muslims who believe that stunning causes unnecessary animal suffering and that their ritual slaughter for kosher and halal meats is more humane.

With the largest populations of Muslims and Jews in Western Europe, the problem has major potential repercussions for France and could affect communities elsewhere that buy French meat exports. The issue is one of many fault lines between Le Pen and incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and the starkly different visions of France they present for next Sunday’s runoff election. It is expected to be much closer than in 2017, when centrist Macron beat Le Pen to a landslide victory.

“We’ve never been this close to having a far-right regime,” Gutmann said. “The alarm bell is ringing.”

Le Pen’s France would be more inward-looking, with far fewer immigrants and fewer rights for those already there, less tolerance for non-Christian traditions, and less closely tied to the European Union and the world outside.

Macron largely promises the opposite as he seeks a second five-year term. Macron focused on Le Pen’s proposals to end the massacre without stunning to underline their political differences. He said he did not want “a France that prevents Muslims or Jews from eating as their religion prescribes”.

Le Pen says she doesn’t want it either. But alarmed Jews and Muslims find it hard to believe. Le Pen does not object to other practices deemed cruel by animal welfare activists, such as bullfighting or – more specifically – hunting, a tradition deeply rooted in rural France where it hunts voices. So its focus on kosher and halal meats smacks of hypocrisy to Jews and Muslims who see a disguised attack on animal welfare.

Le Pen says the meats could instead be imported. But it also doesn’t make sense to critics, as it seems to go against Le Pen’s general rule, France first, that the country should produce more stuff itself and import less.

His camp also did an about-face. Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s No. 2 who leads his National Rally party as it seeks the presidency, said in March that he wanted an outright ban on kosher and halal meat, imported and from animals slaughtered in the country.

Jewish leaders responded in a statement that the “despicable” proposal would force large numbers of Jews and Muslims to leave.

But Le Pen and Macron are now modulating their positions on issues important to voters who failed to support them in the first round of the election, seeking to amass the votes they will need to win the second round. Macron, in particular, has relaxed his plan to raise the retirement age to 65. Le Pen tries to appear more inclusive.

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“I’m not going to get rid of halal and kosher butcher shops at all,” she said this week. She said meat from animals that have been electrically stunned could prove to be an acceptable halal alternative for some Muslims. But otherwise, “the import of this meat would be authorized, of course”.

“What we really want is to stop this very intense animal suffering, which is the consequence of slaughter without stunning,” Le Pen said.

Slovenia, Denmark and Sweden, as well as non-EU Switzerland, Iceland and Norway, have removed religious exemptions, meaning kosher and halal meat must be imported. The same is true for the Flemish and Walloon regions of Belgium. The bans are being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights by Yohan Benizri, vice-president of the European Jewish Congress.

He says the ban on religious slaughter makes Jews feel that “we are not part of European culture” and “paints us as a kind of savage”.

Because France exports kosher meat, banning its production “will have a devastating effect” on Jewish communities elsewhere, he said.

“It will also be a devastating signal because – again – we would not be seen as welcome in the European Union,” Benizri said.

As her son finished lunch, Sarah Gutmann said the most worrying aspect of a law pushed by Le Pen on the issue would be if it was met with general indifference.

“So really, I’ll be very, very scared,” she said. “If I see an unjust law passed and no one reacts, then we will say that we are really in danger.”

Associated Press reporters Nicolas Garriga in Paris and Elaine Ganley in Vernon, France, contributed.

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