By Elif Kayi
France. With an estimated Muslim population of about 5 million – the figure is disputed but I will not discuss it in this article – together with hundred thousands of so-called French “black feet“ repatriated from North Africa in the 1960s, and who had previously become acquainted with the practice, the fasting period of Ramadan is no complete alien in the “country of Marianne”.
Questions regarding Ramadan might still be open for some people – starting sometimes from Muslim migrant children themselves. However, a majority of French seem more or less to know what Ramadan is about, even though they may ignore details of the practice.
For decades nobody really paid much attention to it. I vaguely remember a few reports in local newspapers concerning teenagers who had been forced to eat by their school teacher at the cantine. Again, France, being keen on its strong secular image and tradition, has long tended to avoid discussing issues related to religion in the public sphere, when not in the frame of a legislative or political matter.
Do this belong to the past? The past months have been hijacked by various debates around Islam and Muslims, mostly in a negative or sceptical way. But while politicians, organisations and intellectuals were “slashing” each other on political and social concerns, new trends were emerging.
This year’s Ramadan seems to have made the buzz! Many regional and even national newspapers reserved a large place to the first days of Ramadan, publishing long features, testimonies of devouts and interviews with local religious authorities. Several reports liked to underline the fact that French Muslims would rather spend this year’s Ramadan in France than at their countries or origin or the one of their parents and grandparents because of the cooler weather in France.
And not only newspapers are now picking up on Ramadan. Since about a year, Ramadan, together with halal food, has started to become a juicy business in France. Moving from the backside of shops and supermarkets, halal products, that used to be thrown on the scrapheap, seem now to enjoy the spotlights.
Jean-Daniel Hertzog, director of the company Isla Délice, which is dedicated to the production of halal products, was one of the first to enter the marketing competition just before the beginning of last year’s Ramadan in 2009 with the launch of a national advertising campaign.
Until the mid-1990’s and for about two decades, French TV viewers were used to the character of priest Don Patillo, a pasta lover played by French actor Fernandel, who was introduced by the brand Panzani.
But times do change and the priest’s image does not longer seem to match with today’s expectations… Last year, Zakia Halal, a subsidiary of the French group Panzani, also made the hit by launching a TV advertising campaign, which was shown on the French largest public TV channels – such as TFI and M6 – before and during Ramadan.
Wassila and Sabrina? Nice female names? Also the brand names of two large French supermarket companies who launched their own halal products: Géant Casino (in 2009) and Carrefour (in March this year).
In February 2010 the French fast-food chain Quick started an experiment, offering a halal-only service in eight of his restaurants. The polemic was harsh as some people claimed that serving only halal food was discriminatory towards people who did not eat halal. However the experiment is still running and might be expanded.
Rachid Bakhalq, a young French entrepreneur of Moroccan origin, went even further, opening this year the first halal supermarket in Paris: Hal’ Shop.
According to Rachid Bakhalq, the halal food sector experiences a 15% yearly growth in France, compared to a growth of between 2 and 5% for the food sector in general. And according to a study carried out by the consulting agency Solis, 4,5 billion euros will be spent by French households in 2010 on halal products.
Needeless to add that the so-called “oriental ethnic marketing” is booming in France, leading Ramadan and halal products to become trendy added values. Not everybody seems happy about the new trend though. Some regret the exaggerated commercial aspects that are now linked with religion. But for Rachid Bakhalq, this is the self-confident attitude that France was needing and he likes to take the example of the United Kingdom, where the Muslim population is smaller than in France but the offer regarding halal products much wider.
Finally, on the French Rivera, not everybody is glad that Ramadan takes place in August this year. In Cannes for instance, many Muslim tourists, especially rich clients from the Persian Gulf countries, have decided to shorten their vacation to spend Ramadan at home. A parameter that the French professionals of tourism have now to take into account…