A provocative comment by an extreme right presidential candidate has started a debate that is dominating the French presidential campaign. France may be in the middle of an economic crisis, but politicians seem more interested in talking about halal meat and religious dietary rules.

It all began when National Front Party presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said that non-Muslims in Paris were unwittingly eating halal meat.

Her comments came a few days after a television expose on the French meat industry. The report, on popular investigative show Envoye Special, focused on sanitary conditions at France's 275 slaughterhouses.

But it also delved into the issue of ritual slaughter. Though a European law mandates that animals must be stunned unconscious before being killed, there is an exception for religious slaughter, where the animal's throat is slit while it's alive. The television documentary reported that most abattoirs around Paris practice only halal slaughter methods because it's too expensive to do both, and they don't want to miss out on the large Muslim market in and around the French capital.

This traditional French butcher in the documentary, Jacques Pierre, explains that he doesn't tell his customers that they're eating halal meat. "We have to lie to them," he says. "We have no choice."

Le Pen says France is being crushed by an invading immigrant force.

"I have the right as a citizen to know if I'm buying meat where the animal is slaughtered in horrible cruelty, taking sometimes 15 minutes to die," said Le Pen. "This is a moral point. Don't French people who don't want to eat halal have the same rights as Muslims who do?"

At the Oasis halal meat shop in this largely immigrant neighborhood in the north of Paris, four butchers stand behind the counter waiting on a line of customers. The butchers say every time there's an election, Muslims are stigmatized, whether it's halal meat or headscarves. Customer Karim Benhadada, who is French-Algerian, says he's long stopped paying attention to Le Pen and the National Front Party.

"The latest debate has nothing to do with halal meat," he says. "It's that their hearts are full of hatred toward us."

Outside his office in central Paris, Jean Yves Camus, a political expert with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, says the issue of eating halal meat is of no particular interest to most French people.

"It's not really a debate within the French population at all," says Camus. "The only thing the average Frenchman is aware of is that Muslims eat a kind of meat that is not the same as the one he eats, but he only cares about the price of meat."

It all might have fizzled out a week ago, but President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is trailing socialist front-runner Francois Hollande, is desperate to attract voters from the far right. Not to be outdone by Le Pen, Sarkozy called for stricter meat labeling and reiterated his position that serving halal meat in school cafeterias was a contradiction of French secular values. Then French Prime Minister Francois Fillon really stuck his foot in it.

Speaking on Europe 1 Radio, Fillon suggested that Muslim and Jewish ancestral ritual slaughter traditions were outdated. "Religions should think about continuing to keep traditions that don't have much in common with today's state of science or hygiene," he said.

His comments brought French Muslims and Jews together in a rare show of unity. The gaffe may also have alienated some Jews, who have long supported Sarkozy. Fillon has been meeting with rabbis and Muslim leaders, scrambling to repair the damage.

Camus says the debate shows the battle for the French presidency is being waged on the far right.

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