By MAÏA DE LA BAUME
— For years, Anissa Benchamacha bought her meat in a parking lot, from vendors hawking near-expired products to Muslims eager to find food that meets their religious requirements.
But on a recent afternoon, Ms. Benchamacha stood in quiet wonderment before the tidy rows of packaged foie gras and bottles of non-alcoholic champagne — all of them halal, or permitted under Islam. in Hal’Shop, a spanking new supermarket in this middle-class Paris suburb, a few aisles away from the cans of
France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe, some six million, and even as they listen to the country debate the terms of their integration into French society they are having a major impact on the food culture here.
Whether a reflection of their sheer numbers or the rising incomes of second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants, the market in halal goods — doctrinally acceptable for Muslims, likekosher food for Jews — is nearly twice the size of the market for organic food.
France is clearly worried about the cultural loyalties of its Muslims and what that may mean for the future. The lower house of Parliament voted overwhelmingly this summer to ban the wearing of full facial veils in public places, and the Senate is expected to take up the matter in the coming months. The expansion of halal has also stirred protest, with some government officials denouncing it as spreading “sectarianism” and inviting discrimination against non-Muslims.
Proponents of the phenomenon agree that the expanding array of here is a sign that the blending of religion, commerce and culture has been more extensive than many realize. But they have a very different take on the trend.
"It’s a sign of integration,” said Abbas Bendali, the director of Solis, a market research agency, who says the halal market is growing nearly 10 percent a year and should reach 4.5 billion euros in 2010. The younger segment of France’s Muslim population, he argued, “no longer lives with the myth of returning to their home country.”
Regardless of the emotions it stirs, the growth of halal in France is undeniable. In the last five years alone, per-household spending on halal food has grown 20-fold, according to the daily newspaper Le Figaro.
Halal offerings have also moved upscale, from the traditional neighborhood butcher, who sold meat slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law, to a significant presence in French food industries, supermarkets and even restaurants.
A number of major French supermarkets devote entire aisles to halal food products, including chicken sausage, paella, pizza bolognaise and lasagna. One supermarket chain, Auchan, carries a total of 80 certified-halal cured meat products, along with 40 kinds of halal frozen goods and some 30 precooked halal meals.Even Iconic French charcuterie and catering brands like as Fleury Michon, Herta and have introduced halal lines, while Evian put a “halal” stamp on some of its bottles to reassure its Muslim clientele that the bottles had never been in close contact with alcohol, which would render the water haram, or unclean.
The gleaming aisles of Hal’Shop, which opened last year, bear little resemblance to the blood-stained walls of the halal butcher shops of Paris’s working-class neighborhoods. Hal’Shop has 1,600 products, including traditional French dishes like as boeuf carottes and cervelas de volaille, cans of foie gras and bottles of “Night Orient,” an alcohol-free champagne made from grape pressings.
“Until now, the halal market was reserved to workers over 55,” the supermarket’s owner, Rachid Bakhalq, said. “The products were ‘ethnic,’ like couscous or spices, and badly packaged — the kind of low-quality products that Muslim customers would have bought in their own home country.”
Mr. Bakhalq, 30, studied at a top business school in France and later worked in a pharmaceutical company in England. He sees himself as part of a new generation of halal gourmets, as a member of a social stratum often referred to here as the “beurgeois,” a play on “bourgeois” and the word “beur,” a slang word for Arab.
Sensing opportunity, brands like Roger Vidal, a quintessentially French manufacturer of foie gras and terrines, have invested in this new wave of gastronomic halal. In 2008, Roger Vidal put out a range of six terrine products featuring halal-certified meat, including a lamb terrine with almonds and prunes, and an “oriental poultry mousse.”
Some stylish Parisian restaurants have begun, discreetly, making their menus halal as well. Les Enfants Terribles in the 12th arrondissement offers updated bistro cuisine and a 29-euro fixed menu, all of it halal, a notable departure from the more traditional halal eateries, many of which feature the ubiquitous kebabs sliced off a rotating skewer.
While many see the growing popularity of halal as a sign of tolerance and modernity in the context of “laicité” — France’s sacrosanct brand of official secularism — some have condemned the expansion of halal as threatening and often uncontrollable, a sign of increased religious dogmatism and even Muslim radicalism among young people.
Last year, the mayor of Roubaix, a city in northern France with a large Muslim population, filed a complaint against a fast-food chain called Quick after it decided to offer exclusively halal meat in eight of its restaurants in Muslim neighborhoods and no longer serve pork in them.
Quick said the operation was only an “experiment” aimed at testing a growing market in France. But the mayor, René Vandierendonck, decried what he called the spread of discrimination against non-Muslims. He was joined by legislators from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing party, including the minister of agriculture, Bruno Lemaire, who declared that Quick “had fallen into sectarianism” by removing pork from its restaurants.
Even Brigitte Bardot, the actress and outspoken animal-rights activist, told Europe 1 radio last month that halal meat “had invaded France.”
Yet, the debate does not seem to bother Mr. Bakhalq, the owner of Hal’Shop. He is a contented entrepreneur, happy to offer his Muslim customers “something that they’ve always wanted to eat.”
He compared the new pride in halal food to the “black is beautiful” movement in the United States.
“Those who come to my shop feel proud, proud to find products they care about,” he said. “It boosts their self-esteem, and they feel valued.”