BERLIN — Guess who’s not coming to dinner — or even breakfast or lunch?
Ahead of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark European trip kicking off this weekend, French officials reportedly nixed plans for a formal meal in Paris with President François Hollande following a dispute over the menu. The Iranians, according to France’s RTL Radio, insisted on a wine-free meal with halal meat — a request based on Islamic codes that amounted to culinary sacrilege in France, a nation that puts the secular ideals of the Republic above all else.
The French, RTL said, counter offered with a presumably alcohol-free breakfast — which the Iranians promptly rejected because it appeared too “cheap.” The two leaders will now reportedly settle for a face-to-face chat next Tuesday.
The food fracas comes as Rouhani is staging his first official trip to Europe as president, one meant to herald Iran’s economic coming out after a long period of international sanctions. Rouhani will meet with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Pope Francis and Italian companies in Rome on Saturday before moving on to France, where he is set to deliver a speech at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and meet with French officials and companies.
A spokeswoman for the Elysée Palace declined immediate comment on the wine and halal spat. But it captured an interesting moment, both for France and Iran. In the international negotiations to reach a historic deal over Iran’s nuclear program, France had taken one of the hardest lines, and Rouhani’s visit is meant as a rapprochement – though whether it will amount to that remains unclear.
For French industry, the stakes are high. Following the sweeping deal that would lift international sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear capability with strict monitoring, European companies and governments are tripping over themselves to court the Iranians. Italy, Germany and other nations have already dispatched trade missions and senior ministers to Tehran in preparation for what they hope will be a green light to turn on the spigots of investment early next year.
During a French trade mission to Iran in September, however, French executives complained that Paris’s hard stance had made it harder for them to win a piece of that pie.
But France is also in the grips of a domestic culture war, with its right wing raising alarms over “Islamification” that has spilled into its deep national relationship with food. The far-right National Front, for instance, has railed against the rise of kebab stands in the country of quiche.
By the same token, hardliners in Iran are pushing back against any suggestion that the nuclear deal will promote a broader opening with the West — making any photo ops showing the consumption of alcohol and non-halal meats out of the question.
Last week, the Daily Beast reported that Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence operatives have arrested five local journalists in recent days. That followed the recent arrest of Dubai-based Iranian-American Siamak Namazi, which brought to four the total of Americans with dual citizenship being held there, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who has been held for more than a year and was recently convicted after an espionage trial. The Post and international media groups say Rezaian is innocent and acted only as a journalist.
Virgile Demoustier in Paris contributed to this report.