* Fillon meets Jewish leaders to reassure them on kosher
* PM due to explain policy to Muslims on Thursday
* Sarkozy defends PM, says meat labelling to be voluntary
By Chine Labbé
PARIS, March 7 France's prime minister
told Jewish leaders on Wednesday he had not meant to stigmatise
their community when he urged them to rethink ancient dietary
laws, as he strove to defuse a fractious row about minorities in
the run up to a presidential election.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon caused an uproar on Tuesday
when he said the Jewish and Muslim "ancestral traditions" of
ritual slaughter were outdated and unjustified.
It was the latest in a series of divisive comments by
politicians about the religious practices of France's ethnic
minorities, seen as a bid to attract right-wing voters ahead of
a two-round election in April and May.
French Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim and Paris Central
Consistory President Joel Mergui said Fillon reassured them
during a meeting in his office on Wednesday that he had not did
not intend to abolish halal and kosher meat slaughter in France.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brought the issue of ritually
prepared meat into his faltering reelection campaign last
weekend, defended his ally Fillon on television on Tuesday
evening and said the debate about religious slaughter customs
"The prime minister clearly explained that he understood we
were hurt," Mergui said after the meeting. "He explained very
clearly that there was no intention to question ritual slaughter
"He denied wanting to hurt us. He denied wanting to take aim
at religion or the Jewish community," Bernheim added.
Fillon was due to receive French Muslim Council President
Mohammad Moussaoui and Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur
on Thursday to give the same message to the Muslim community.
Moussaoui said on Tuesday that Muslims would not "serve as
scapegoats in this campaign."
France's 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews are the largest
such religious minorities in Europe. Not all eat halal or kosher
food, but the anti-immigrant National Front has seized on the
growing popularity of halal meat to appeal to far-right voters.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen said last month that all
meat sold in and around Paris was halal. It later emerged that
the few abattoirs in the area slaughtered animals the Muslim way
and some of that meat was sold unmarked in non-Muslim shops.
Sarkozy called on Saturday for meat labels to show if the
animal was stunned before slaughter, in accordance with a
European Union directive to lessen pain, or was conscious when
its throat was slit according to Muslim or Jewish custom.
Mergui and Bernheim described Sarkozy's statement as "a
brutal about-turn" from its previous policy of allowing butchers
to sell surplus halal and kosher meat to the general public
without indicating the method of slaughter.
"That is a form of stigmatisation that will make prices
rise," they said. Meat industry officials say halal and kosher
meat could become more expensive if they could not sell surplus
cuts unmarked in supermarkets and neighbourhood butcher shops.
In his television interview, Sarkozy tried to reassure Jews
and Muslims by saying the meat labelling should be voluntary.
(Reporting by Chine Labbe, writing by Tom Heneghan)