- Associated Press - Sunday, September 5, 2010

FLEURY-MEROGIS, France | The bacon is gone from the bacon burgers, replaced by smoked turkey. At a fast-food restaurant outside Paris, a new certificate on the wall proclaims that its beef comes from cows slaughtered in line with Islamic law.

Last month, popular French fast-food chain Quick, the No. 2 burger chain in France after McDonald’s, started serving halal-only food in 22 of its French outlets, targeting France’s large Muslim population, an underexploited market that has long been ignored by big business.

If it’s a savvy business decision — Quick says sales doubled at restaurants that have tested the concept — the move also has opened a new chapter in the perennial war over how much society should accommodate Muslim traditions.

Or in essence, what it means to be French.

Politicians left and right have attacked the move from every conceivable angle.

Some ask why halal food should be foisted on the general population, while others worry the Quicks in question will promote segregation of the Muslim community instead of acceptance.

France argues that integration is the only option for minorities, and the only way to preserve social cohesion.

The spat over the halal burgers runs alongside an even more high-profile debate in parliament: This month, the Senate looks set to approve a ban on Islamic face-covering veils such as niqabs or burqas, a law that many Muslims worry will stigmatize them.

There are also fears among Muslims that Quick’s strategy change risks creating a stigma — even if many are delighted that a big French chain has their needs in mind and are tired of the filleted-fish sandwiches that are often the only fast-food option open to them.

Halal beef must come from a cow that has been killed by a cut to its jugular vein, from which all the blood from the carcass is drained. It tastes no different from other beef.

Hedi Naamane, a 29-year-old technician who brought his 2-year-old son to taste a halal burger for lunch, says he is worried Quick’s move will be fodder for discrimination.

“There are a lot of people who complain about mosques popping up, about halal products, and this and that, and now some people are going to say, ‘Oh la la, hang on, Quick is European!’” said Mr. Naamane, as he fed his son a kid’s meal.

Mr. Naamane himself was not eating. Perhaps a bit strangely, the chain launched its halal-only burger restaurants in the middle of Ramadan, a month when devout Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Quick says the date was purely a coincidence.

Another oddity of the decision is that Quick is 94 percent owned by a subsidiary of the state-controlled bank Caisse des Depots et Consignations.

Some critics find it absurd that the French state — which has such a strict interpretation of secularism that it does not allow girls to wear Muslim head scarves to school — is technically behind the operation.

A main point of contention is that Quick is not offering a non-halal menu at the 22 outlets concerned. It has a total of 346 restaurants in France.

Stephane Gatignon, the mayor of the Paris suburb of Sevran and a member of the environmentalist party Europe Ecologie, says he is worried the Quick in his town will become a Muslims-only hangout, preventing ethnic groups from mingling.

On top of that, “It’s stigmatizing,” he told the Associated Press. Quick is saying, “in these towns, there are only Muslims, but in a town like Sevran, there are not only Muslims, there are a lot of other religions here, too. Everyone has to find their place.”

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front party, said Quick’s decision is a “scandal.”

“I’m not Muslim, I don’t want this imposed on me,” the daughter of French far-right icon Jean-Marie Le Pen told Europe-1 radio.

Kentucky Fried Chicken France says it has served halal chicken in its French outlets for 19 years. That fact is not well-known, though, and the chain has largely been left out of the debate over the burger chain.

Quick already sparked a spat earlier this year during the testing phase of the halal operation.

The French city of Roubaix filed a legal complaint accusing it of discrimination. The complaint was later withdrawn, with the mayor saying he was satisfied about Quick’s promises to keep the concerns of non-Muslims in mind.

At the 22 restaurants involved, beer is still on sale. For those who object to eating halal beef, the chain also says it is working on a pre-cooked non-halal burger that will be stored in a wrapper so it doesn’t contaminate the rest of the offerings. The company says it expects sales of the product to be minimal.

Quick predicts a great future for halal business in France, citing an independent study last year by France’s Solis agency that estimated the market for halal food is growing by 15 percent a year.

In France, an estimated 5 million of the 63 million population is thought to be Muslim.

Abdel El Machkour, who oversees Quick franchises for the Paris region, said the goal is simply to be able to serve its products to a larger number of people.

“The fact that we propose this halal-food range is not led by any kind of will to segregate a particular community. It is to propose a product range that many clients from all religions can consume,” he told the AP. “And Quick is here to respond to that demand.”

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