When Aïcha Tabbakhe, a French nurse, went to fill out the forms for her children’s school dinners in her small town outside Paris, she was puzzled. The box she would usually tick to say that her Muslim children didn’t eat pork wasn’t there. “Confused, I called the town hall and I was bluntly told: ‘From now on, that’s the way it is,’” she said. “Pork or nothing.”
After years of French controversies over headscarves, pork has become the new battleground in the nation’s uneasy debate over national identity and the place of Islam. Bacon and sausage school dinners are being used by rightwing politicians to hammer home what it means to be French. Court battles and vicious political spats have erupted as protesters warn that controversial menu changes are sending a message to Muslim or Jewish children that to be truly French, they must eat roast pork.
Tabbakhe’s home town of Chilly-Mazarin – a town of about 20,000 people in L’Essonne, which nudges up against Orly airport to the south of Paris – is the latest of several run by rightwing mayors to announce they will scrap pork-free options in school canteens in the name of secularism. For 30 years, Chilly-Mazarin has provided non-pork alternatives to Muslim and Jewish children. But from November, that will stop. On days when the menu features dishes such as roast pork with mustard and courgette gratin, or Strasbourg sausage and organic lentils, or ham pasta bake, children whose families don’t eat pork for religious reasons will be offered nothing but the side dishes. The new mayor, Jean-Paul Beneytou, from Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing Les Républicains party, says this is a commonsense way to preserve public sector “neutrality”. But many parents, teachers and leftwing opposition politicians call it a deliberate stigmatisation of Islam that is cruel to children by playing politics with school lunches.
Last month, as Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, the Front National mayor of Hayange en Moselle, Fabien Engelmann, tweeted pictures of himself petting sheep he said had been rescued from the Muslim celebrations and were being taken to an animal sanctuary.
According to the CCIF Islamophobia watchdog, at least 130 students have been turned away from class since 2014 for outfits religious – mainly long black skirts. Its spokesman, Yasser Louati, says: “This showed a hysteria targeting Muslims, which is not good for society as a whole.” He says of the pork school meals issue: “It is a deliberate new policy taken by the right to keep up public debate around national identity issues in France. I was born and raised here, and until recently I had never heard of a problem with different school meal options for Muslim and Jewish children who don’t eat pork.”