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Letter From France: Hamburger chain's decision sparks tensions over Islam

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 1:07 PM

IN LA COURNEUVE, FRANCE Sami Desadjri, an observant French Muslim, used to have a problem when he and his high school classmates hit the local burger joint for lunch. Since the meat was not halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines, he was forced to fall back on fish sandwiches, assaulting his adolescent taste buds and splitting him from the clique.

But those awkward times are over. In a telling measure of the growing Muslim presence in France, Quick, a homegrown hamburger chain trying to compete with McDonald's, began serving halal hamburgers last month in 22 of its 367 restaurants, including the busy establishment frequented by Desadjri and his friends in this heavily Muslim suburb just north of Paris.

"It's really important for me," said Desadjri, a bright-eyed 16-year-old with wavy black hair who was gulping a hamburger and fries the other day alongside a non-Muslim pal, Darren de Lemos, 17. "I used to come here before, but I could never eat what I wanted. Now, we can all eat the same thing."

The decision to serve halal burgers, with its bow to Muslim buying power, has produced an outcry among some political leaders, who regard it as an affront to France's Christian traditions and official secularism. As a result, the lowly hamburger has become an unlikely new symbol of the unease spreading across Western Europe over an influx of immigrants, including many Muslims, who as their numbers increase demand respect for their traditions.

The great hamburger debate has not risen to the national level, where President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has occupied the backlash scene by cracking down on illegal residents, particularly Roma from Eastern Europe, and instituting a ban on full-face Islamic veils in public. But Quick's decision has roiled a number of mayors, from the political left as well as the right, in communities where the new halal restaurants are becoming popular.

Rene Vandierendonck, the Socialist mayor of Roubaix in northern France, charged Quick with discrimination when it turned its Roubaix restaurant into a halal-only operation. He acted after a protest from Marine Le Pen, a leader of the far-right National Front and the daughter of its founder and former presidential candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In response, authorities in nearby Lille opened a criminal investigation. But Vandierendonck withdrew his complaint after Quick offered to negotiate a compromise under which those who preferred could order non-halal hamburgers.

Since then, at least two more legal complaints have been filed.

Jacqueline Rouillon, the Communist mayor of Saint-Ouen near Paris, said she planned to contact other mayors in towns where Quick restaurants have gone halal to see whether they can organize joint negotiations, with the goal of forcing the firm to maintain a choice.

The opposition seemed based on an assumption that non-Muslims are frozen out in halal restaurants because they cannot eat halal meat. But neither the taste nor the texture is affected by halal practices; non-Muslim customers here in La Courneuve, including Desadjri's friends from a nearby vocational high school, seemed to find no difference in their burgers.

Halal, or lawful, meat comes from animals slaughtered according to Islamic rules stipulating, among other things, that they be killed by a knife stroke that severs the arteries in their throat so they lose their blood. In addition, the rules require care lest halal meat be contaminated by contact with non-halal products. As a result, Quick officials explained, offering a choice to restaurant customers is difficult because keeping halal and non-halal meat separate during storage and cooking is not cost-effective.

Quick, a franchise operation owned by a French-run investment group, decided on halal burgers not as a gesture toward integration but as a way to raise its market share, which is one-third that of McDonald's. A six-month test last year in eight restaurants in Muslim-heavy neighborhoods showed a doubling of business after certificates were hung up guaranteeing that their beef was halal, the company said.

Quick's board chairman, Jacques-Edouard Charret, noted that Quick was not the first to offer halal meat in France, since hole-in-the-wall souvlaki shops have been offering a halal guarantee for years. Just down the street from the La Courneuve operation, for instance, are butcher shops, sandwich shops and a pizzeria that advertise, sometimes in Arabic, that their meat is halal.

A franchise holder in the southwestern city of Toulouse had urged the test after noting a drop in business as little halal sandwich shops began opening along nearby streets, said Quick's spokeswoman, Valerie Raynal. Restaurants were picked for the experiment on the basis of how many fish sandwiches they served, how few bacon burgers were ordered and how sharply business dropped off during the Ramadan fast.

The numbers are not yet in since halal operations expanded to 22 Quick restaurants last month, but indications are that business is way up, Raynal said.

Nobody has counted for sure how many people from Muslim families live in France; ethnic identification is forbidden in censuses. Some Muslim leaders have suggested the number is 6 million, but the Interior Ministry and several academic specialists estimate 5 million. Either way, France, with its close ties to North Africa, has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, many of whom go for hamburgers.

Carre Gandega, an immigrant from Mauritania who manages the La Courneuve restaurant, said Quick's decision to go halal "took some daring" given the tense debate over immigration that has been riling the country but added that the result has been good for his profits.

"There is a big difference, a big, big difference," he said as customers, including a number of women in Islamic scarves, lined up to place orders.

Above the counter were advertisements for burger meals, oily fries, sugary soft drinks and cloying milkshakes. Just to the right hung several framed certificates, delivered by Muslim religious authorities, with guarantees in French and Arabic that the calories were all halal.

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