Bigotry at the table: what happens when people hate you but love your food?
French culinary tastes are shifting with changing demographics. For some, that’s a step too far.
France is the glorious land of good food and art de vivre. Its culinary savoir-faire has transcended time and space and has reached the entire world. France rightly takes pride over its rich diverse gastronomy, and people from all over the world come to visit France because of its highly praised culinary reputation. So why are kebabs — France’s third-most popular takeaway food consisting of traditional pita bread sandwiches filled with sliced meat garnished with tomatoes, onions and sauce — being caught up in a battle for French identity? This might sound silly, but an emerging controversy surrounding kebabs is appearing regularly in newspapers and political TV debates, and not for the reasons you might think (i.e. the dangers of junk food to your cholesterol level and caloric intake). According to Béziers far-right mayor Robert Ménard, kebabs are not “Judeo-Christian” and have the power to destroy France’s culture, gastronomy reputation and annihilate French identity. Kebabs, it seems, have gone from benign post-pub food to becoming a political object used to justify bigotry against immigrants and Muslims.
While there is no doubt that food has brought people together, since the 1990’s gastronomy has moved from the dining table to the political one and is constantly used as a prop in debates on immigration, national identity and the place of Islam in France. These debates cover such topics as pork-free menus in school cafeterias, regulation of halal slaughter rituals, the visibility and presence of kebabs on French streets, or the appropriation of couscous. This politicization of gastronomy, now a recurring theme in particular during electoral campaigns, is not without consequence. How is this increased politicization of food by right-wing groups like the Front National and supremacists movements like Les Identitaires impacting the integration of immigrants and their descendants?
This phenomenon has reached a fever pitch as groups like Les Identitaires have latched onto a strategy to mobilize at the regional and local level, having discovered the difficulty of working on the issue at a national one. In 2012, the identitarian group Nissa Rebela (Rebel Nice) launched a virulent movement in the city of Nice to defend Socca, a traditional dish that they see as being severely threatened by the visible presence of Kebabs. Socca, a thin crêpe made of chickpea flour, can be found in various forms in Italy (Belecàuda) and, somewhat ironically, Algeria (Karantika). One of the slogans the group uses in its campaigns is, “No to Kebabs, yes to Socca”. It didn’t matter that foods of all types have long crossed borders and spanned the Mediterranean, nor did it matter that kebabs have been in France longer than McDonald’s. Kebabs are being positioned by Les Identitaires and their allies as a symbol of Turkish and North African immigration and of the purported “Islamization of France”. The second part of the slogan, “Yes to Socca”, references an exacerbated form of provincialism that urgently wishes to protect local culinary heritage against globalization (including the American fast-food industry), immigration and the so-called Islamization of the West.
In 2010, French writer Renaud Camus developed the racist and nationalist theory of the ‘great replacement’ (le Grand remplacement) which postulates that “native-born French” (français de souche) will all be replaced by immigrants if France does not recognize the danger. Because kebab shops in France are largely run by immigrants or children of immigrants (often because they have few other employment options), their success is considered a threat to local restaurants and, more generally, to the survival of a French gastronomy already seen as under threat from the growing popularity of American fast food. Being visible on the streets of France, they are literally on the front lines of this culture war. The fact that kebabs shops contribute to the local economy and create jobs — in short, a net positive to local economies — doesn’t seem to matter. Kebabs are also framed in terms of their perceived threat to hygiene and accusations of money laundering for nefarious purposes.
Les Identitaires also justifies their fervent opposition not only on cultural grounds but also religious ones. For example, Les Identitaires have targeted restaurants serving halal certified food, one notable example being the fast food chain Quick. In 2010, Quick announced that it would serve halal certified food in eight of its restaurants that were located in neighborhoods with high Muslim populations. To protest this decision, a handful number of supporters of Les Identitaires in the city of Lyon stormed a Quick restaurant while wearing pig masks. The reference to pigs and pork is a typical identity marker used by such groups, many of whom continue to believe that pork is to Muslims what kryptonite is to Superman or garlic to Dracula. For them, pork is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction to stop anything related to Muslims or Islam. The Front National, which has had more political success than their rivals Les Identitaires, has also employed a strategy of gastronomic racism with references to pigs, which they elevate to a sort of Joan of Arc ready to fight for French national identity against Islam, and in particular a merciless fight against kebabs.
This fight has taken many forms. During the 2014 municipal elections, many members of the Front National followed the lead of Nissa Rebela in using an anti-kebab strategy, leading to the victory of two politicians, Robert Ménard in Béziers and Julien Sanchez in Blois. Last summer, local authorities in the city of Marseille took regulatory steps to make it harder for small storefront businesses (most of which are owned by immigrants) to get commercial leases. Although kebab shops were not specifically singled out, their owners fear this decision will effectively force them to shut down their business. In February 2018, the city of Toulouse followed the example of Marseille and announced its intention to restrict the development of what they refer to as “communautarian businesses” — a policy intended specifically to target Halal restaurants and butchers on the grounds that there are too many and that Toulouse needs more “diversity” in its restaurant scene.
Another recent example focuses on couscous, the Berber culinary specialty of North Africa that remains popular across France to this day. This popularity ironically resulted in the resignation of Florian Philippot, a major figure in the Front National. A photo on Twitter of Philippot dining on couscous with his advisors in a Strasbourg restaurant provoked the ire of many of his supporters, who see couscous as a symbol of an immigrant invasion of France, as well as a decidedly non-French dish that should have been replaced with sauerkraut to honor the local culture. Despite the fact that many (including Philippot) believe that couscous is indeed French, having been brought back from Algeria by returning Pieds-Noirs (people of European, mostly French, origin who lived in Algeria during the colonial era), he could weather the political storm.
As far-right politicians successfully use this strategy, more mainstream conservative politicians have taken note. In 2012, in the middle of an intense presidential campaign and feeling the pressure from Marine Le Pen’s political rise, President Sarkozy and several key members of his administration incorporated the theme of French food purity into their political discourse. Marine Le Pen’s successful attacks on halal meat and pork-free menus in schools led then-minister of Interior Claude Guéant to claim that giving foreigners the right to vote in local elections could lead to making halal meat compulsory in French schools cafeterias. In addition, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that children who do not eat pork (meaning primarily Muslims, but also including Jews and Hindus) should order a double portion of fries when their school canteen puts ham on the menu.
From renowned French chef Thierry Marx who re-interpreted kebabs for his clients at the prestigious Hotel Mandarin Oriental in Paris to students who rush to get an affordable and filling kebab at lunch break or after a night of partying, kebabs have unequivocally established themselves as a full part of the French culinary landscape, despite their foreign origins. Many immigrants and newcomers to France have opened restaurants and food shops in their quest to integrate themselves into society, creating a unique and modest economic model for social fulfillment. If a vocal and coward fringe of individuals fears that a greasy sandwich will destroy French identity, it is more reflective of the fact that they have little faith in the strength of French culture. Kebabs are more a threat to a person’s cholesterol level than to the survival of the French nation. France needs to understand that rejecting its rich cultural diversity will not allow her to survive in a globalized world.