- - Wednesday, July 25, 2018

PARIS — France’s world-famous butchers are sharpening their knives — but the target this time isn’t lamb chops and pork loins but a brigade of growing and increasingly confrontational vegetarians.

In June, the French Federation of Butchers sought the help of the government against the rising number of attacks from what it called “militant” vegan activists, who have been targeting shops with anti-meat graffiti, fake blood and protest stickers. The butchers called the harassment a form of terrorism aided by a hostile media.

“It’s terror that these people are seeking to sow, in their aim of making a whole section of French culture disappear,” federation chief Jean-Francois Guihard wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Gerard Collomb.

A decade ago, vegetarian visitors to France faced scornful looks and a diet of omelets and salad when eating at restaurants or in French homes.

But times have changed.

Paris alone now has over 320 vegetarian-friendly restaurants, and the meatless movement has caught on to such an extent that the country’s world-renowned butchers fear the popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets is threatening French culture.

French consumers, particularly in urban areas, have been warming up to meat-free cuisine because of health and animal welfare concerns, but the ready availability of quinoa and kale isn’t likely to replace their penchant for boeuf bourguignon and steak frites.

Since 1959, Parisians and tourists have been patiently waiting in line for up to 30 minutes to gain a table at Le Relais de Venise, an unassuming restaurant in the 17th Arrondissement in northern Paris that lists only one main course on the menu: entrecote steak accompanied by a secret sauce and a double portion of fries.

“I come here to treat myself,” said Alice, 35, who preferred not to give her last name. She was waiting in line with her office co-workers at lunchtime. “I try to eat less meat and charcuterie for health reasons, but I don’t want to give it up completely. After all, it’s part of the French way: We like to live well and enjoy nice food and drink.”

Although their views on meat might differ, the growing ranks of vegans and vegetarians in the land of gastronomy share the same approach. Even though the number of people who eschew all animal products, including wool and leather, remains a tiny percentage of the French population, about 5 percent consider themselves vegetarian or vegan, according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted last year.

France is certainly behind countries like Germany in terms of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. But we remain very demanding when it comes to the quality of the alternatives to meat and dairy products,” said Yannick Fosse, one of the three young entrepreneurs who founded Les Petits Veganne, an artisanal organic vegan cheese maker based in the eastern region of Lorraine.

The trio spent more than a year perfecting a recipe that would meet the exacting standards of French palates.

“There is huge demand for our products because we use a slow process that ensures the flavor and the texture resemble those of traditional French cheese,” he said.

French ‘flexitarians’

The meat-free trend isn’t restricted to haute cuisine.

According to Herta, a supermarket delicatessen brand, 30 percent of people in France are “flexitarians,” opting for a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat. The findings have prompted the company to launch a range of vegetable-based meat substitutes to appeal to the changing tastes of French consumers.

In a worrying sign for the poultry, pork and beef farmers, at least 50 percent of people in France say they want to increase consumption of vegetable-based food, according to an Ifop/Lesieur poll.

Farmers and butchers also seem concerned about a significant fall in meat consumption in France, which has slumped 20 percent in the past 20 years.

Meat consumption in France was estimated at 185 pounds per person last year compared with an average of 152 pounds for the rest of the European Union, according to French farming agency FranceAgriMer. That is still well below the 207 pounds of meat that the average Frenchman ate in 1998.

These figures point to increased awareness among the French public about the effects of intensive farming on animal welfare and the environment, said Eddy Fougier, a French political scientist specializing in protest movements.

“There is, of course, the trendy aspect of the ‘veggie’ lifestyle that has been seized by food producers because it’s fashionable,” he said. “But it’s obvious we are eating less meat and our attitude toward animals is changing as people come to terms with the reality of intensive animal farming and its negative effects on the environment.”

He cited as one prime example the “proliferation of toxic seaweed on the coast of Brittany, fueled by intensive pig farming.”

“Today, fewer people find it acceptable to buy eggs laid by hens kept in cages,” he said. “They’d rather eat organic or free-range eggs.”

Trendsetting French celebrities also have played a role in the switch from meat- to plant-based diets. Actress Sophie Marceau spoke out this year against the production of battery-cage eggs as part of an awareness campaign launched by animal protection association L214.

For many years, French movie siren Brigitte Bardot has been at the forefront of campaigns against animal cruelty, including bullfighting, hunting and such agricultural processes as the breeding of ducks for foie gras. The production of this luxury food involves force-feeding the birds with a tube to obtain an enlarged liver with a fatty texture that is prized by gourmets around the world.

Farmers and butchers are fighting back, embarking on a vigorous lobbying campaign against the perceived threat against France’s prized culinary traditions.

Their strategy seems to be working.

Lawmakers in the National Assembly swiftly rejected a recent proposal to require schools to introduce a weekly vegetarian meal. The legislature also approved an amendment barring vegetarian food producers from using the words “steak,” “fillet,” “bacon,” “sausage” or any other meat-related term in market products that are not partly or wholly made up of meat.

The regulation also applies to vegetarian and vegan products sold as dairy alternatives. For example, Les Petits Veganne has to market its version of Camembert cheese with the similar-sounding “camembaire.”

Failure to comply with these regulations could lead to fines of up to $350,000.

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