After the burqa, France is now grappling with the burger. The American culinary import that was once anathema for Gallic patriots is at the heart of the latest bout of anguish over Islam in France.
Politicians, media and Paris penseurs have been piling in against Quick, a Franco-Belgian fast-food chain, over its policy of serving only halal meat in eight of its 362 burger outlets. Quick's popular Strong Bacon burger is out, replaced by smoked turkey at the Islamically correct restaurants at Roubaix, on the Belgian frontier, and in Muslim-dominated suburbs of Paris and other cities.
The campaign for next month's regional elections explains the row, which was ignited by Marine Le Pen, heir to her father Jean-Marie's far-right Front National. Le Pen, a European Parliament deputy for the north, heard about the pork-free Quicks, which have been on sale since last November without a complaint. Last weekend, she denounced the "halal-burgers" as an "Islamic tax". President Sarkozy was supporting the "forced Islamisation of France" because a state investment fund holds a majority stake in the Quick company, she said.
The bacon-free policy has now been criticised by cabinet ministers and the leader of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement. Some leftwing figures are also upset. Ren Vandierendonck, the Socialist Mayor of Roubaix, has complained to prosecutors on the grounds that Quick is discriminating against non-Muslims in his town.
The burger fuss is of course just the latest manifestation of anxiety over what is perceived to be an assertive Muslim population. The sense of threat lies behind the popular steps to outlaw the full Muslim veil on transport, universities and other state-run services. It also fuelled Sarkozy's four-month great national debate on the nature of French identity. The exercise was called off this month after focusing only the six-million Muslims in France's midst.
Outsiders, especially from the "Anglo-Saxon" countries, are quick to criticise the way that the French establishment appears to condone intolerance and even Islamophobia. Barack Obama and the New York Times have both taken swipes at France in recent months over its curbs on Muslim women's dress.
Foreign critics find it hard to grasp the different way that France approaches matters that involve liberties, religion and race. The opponents of Quick fastfood and Muslim veils draw on high-minded principles which go back to the equality of the 1789 Revolution and the Republic's more recent principle of laicit, the strict separation of religion from public life.
These "valeurs de la Rpublique" are cited by leftists and intellectuals as well as rightwing politicians to deplore the more visible practices of Islam. The argument is that religious behaviour outside the mainstream culture amounts to an act of separateness and should be discouraged (For the ideal of the mainstream, see yesterday's post on white Marianne, symbol of the Revolution). By setting themselves apart from traditional French life, Muslims are being "identitaire" and committing "communautarisme". Equivalent to sectarianism, this means putting one's ethnic or religious identity ahead of Frenchness.
Britain and the United States, with their supposed ghettos, are seen as examples of the ill. Anne Fulda commenting in today's Le Figaro, complained that France has imported communautarisme from the United States along with hamburgers and now it is too late to stop it.
The problem is that the sin of communautarisme has a flexible definition. That is what makes it dubious when applied to Muslims. With France's record in world war two, no-one would publicly accuse the Jewish population of communautarisme, let alone complain to prosecutors. No-one protests against kosher restaurants -- or says Chinese or Italian ones discriminate because they do not offer French cuisine. Try substituting kosher for halal in the complaints over Quick burgers and the effect is offensive.
In reality, the noble values of the Republic are often a hindrance to France's ability to tackle its difficulties with the descendants of the 1960s and 70s immigrants from the North African colonies. As we have often seen here before, the defective colour-blind model of integration has had the effect of encouraging radical Islam among the disaffected young of the ethnic estates.
Many people understand that and deplore the Republican humbug that is used to mask xenophobia. Claude Weill, Editor of le Nouvel Observateur, wrote a good piece making this point. But it is interesting to note that no-one seems to be proposing Britain, with its doctrine of diversity, or any other European country as a model for dealing any better with their Muslims.
Charles Bremner is Paris Correspondent for The Times. He has been based in New York, Washington, Moscow, Brussels and Mexico City but he sees France as home after more than 15 years as a journalist there. As well as following the life and politics of France, he also writes extensively on aviation.
the same protests have been reported in the press in britain as well.
is it discrimination when restaurants open up to serve vegetarians? there's no meat there at all. but that is allowed. kosher restaurants are allowed. it's ridiculous. the french are snotty anyway, but the british disappointed me by following the irrationality.
respect Muslim culture as they are the citizen of that country.