RPT-France's halal market grows despite political polemics
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* Campaign polemics make no dent in French halal market
* Producers see continued strong growth for Muslim consumers
* Foreign food firms aim at Europe's largest halal market
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS, April 3 (Reuters) - Some French politicians have seized on the spread of halal food to win votes. Producers selling their wares at Paris's annual Muslim food fair are much more sure it will bring something else: profit.
France's halal market, now estimated at 5.5 billion euros with about 10 percent annual growth, became a political issue in recent weeks as President Nicolas Sarkozy used it in an unabashed pitch for votes from the anti-immigrant far-right.
The raw facts about halal butchering became a top issue on the election campaign trail, to the point that Sarkozy's prime minister, Francois Fillon, said halal and kosher slaughter were outdated "ancestral traditions" that should be scrapped.
That hit a raw nerve in France's Muslim and Jewish communities - both the largest of their kind in Europe - whose leaders complained openly. The issue has since mostly faded from the campaign for the two-round presidential election, which ends on May 6.
"It was a lot of noise for nothing," said Aissa Osmane, who sells sharia-compliant spaghetti sauces with halal beef in the bolognese and smoked poultry cubes for bacon in the carbonara.
The halal market can only grow as the 5-million strong Muslim community further integrates into French life, said the businessman from the Paris suburb of Villetaneuse.
"Muslims live in today's world like everybody else, they're busy and want ready-made foods," he said.
"The politicians are just looking for votes," said Rached Abssi, sales director for the Kenza Halal processed meat company in the same northern Paris suburb. "We're just an excuse for them not to talk about the financial crisis."
Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-immigrant National Front party, launched the verbal food fight in February when she said all meat sold in the Paris region was halal, and accused Sarkozy of bowing to Muslim pressure to allow this.
While this was an exaggeration, the debate revealed that abattoirs in the Paris region slaughtered animals exclusively the halal way - without stunning them before slitting their throats - but didn't always mark meat as halal if it were sold to non-Muslim shops.
Slaughterhouses said it was too costly to operate two methods of slaughter. Sarkozy suggested clearly marking the slaughter method on all meat, but backed down after industry leaders impressed on him that this would increase costs.
Several producers at the fair said Muslims in Europe had long had fresh halal meat from Islamic butchers, but used to have nowhere near as many prepared foods as now.
"The market is playing catch-up to the demand," said Dawood Ali, director of Gem Foods in Coventry, England. "It's getting bigger because people are now trying to meet that demand."
Asked when supply would meet demand, Ali said: "We're halfway there." Abssi gave the same estimate.
A quick tour around the few dozen stands at one end of a larger food industry fair here showed foreign producers saw France as a major market.
Halal foods on display included Dutch, Danish and Turkish meats, Belgian yoghurt, British baby food, Indonesian nasi goreng, Malaysian sweet and sour sauce, alcohol-free champagne from Belgium and Austria, and a whisky-flavoured malt drink from the United States.
FRENCH MUSLIMS WITH FRENCH TASTES
"There's more variety and openness to new foods here," said Ali, who displayed everything from ready-made dinners to baby food and chocolate-covered dates. "French Muslims are very into cuisine and see it as an art. In the U.K., they're more closed."
The taste for local cuisine among French Muslims, many of whom were born here and eat more sandwiches and pasta than couscous or tajine, has also prompted some French producers of non-meat products to get halal certification for them.
Gilles Amand, a caterer from Morlaix in Brittany, displayed a variety of fish-and-vegetable terrines that he had been selling for several years before getting a halal certificate to reassure Muslim clients.
All fish are halal, or permissible, by nature, but Muslims here shy away from unmarked fish terrines because there could be gelatin made from pork in it. Amand said the certificate proved his terrines only had vegetable-based gelatin in them.
"This reassures them about the quality," he said. (Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Peter Graff)