World / Social Issues

In France, kebabs get wrapped up in identity politics

Reuters

In a country whose national identity is so closely connected to its cuisine, France’s hard right has seized on a growing appetite for kebabs as proof of cultural Islamization.

Four kebab houses opened last month in Blois, bringing the total to over a dozen in the pretty Loire Valley town, whose castles draws tourists.

The far-right National Front party railed, “The historical center of Blois, the jewel of French history, is turning into an Oriental city.”

The implicit message is clear. The now ubiquitous kebab, popular with the young and cash-strapped, is a sign that Middle Eastern culture has taken root in France, where not everyone is happy about the presence of the country’s 5 million Muslims.

“The kebab is a bit of a reflection of all the problems with immigration and integration in France,” said Thibaut Le Pellec, founder of KebabFrites.com, a website that ranks kebab houses across the country and seeks to raise the reputation of the “kebabistes” who make and sell the food.

Damien Schmitz, who runs a Paris kebab shop in Paris, put it more bluntly. By criticizing the kebab, he said, “you can speak ill of Muslims without speaking ill of Muslims.”

Introduced by Turkish immigrants to Paris in the 1990s, the doner kebab — where meat is carved off an upright rotating spit and served in a flat bread with salad and spicy sauce — quickly found favor with France’s North African population, raised on spiced halal meat in tagines and stews.

The dish has been adapted to the French palate, served in crusty bread with a creamy white sauce and side of fries.

Now 300 million kebabs at about €6 ($7.60) each are eaten in 10,200 outlets in France each year, putting the €1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) industry just behind burgers and pizza, according to Gira Conseil, a market research company.

Kebabs are everywhere — in cities and towns, in supermarket freezers and drive-thrus. One brand of potato chips is even kebab-flavored. It is advertised by Yohan Cabaye, a white soccer star who plays for France and Paris Saint-Germain.

But despite its rapid rise in popularity, the kebab has a lingering reputation — perpetuated in part by hidden-camera TV shows that have exposed some poor kitchen conditions — of greasy junk food served in dodgy corner shops by nonassimilated Muslim immigrants.

With food often used as a metaphor for French identity, the National Front has made a campaign issue of opposing the widespread supply of halal meat, something it sees as Islam impinging on French traditions.

Campaigning for local elections last March, National Front candidates across the country criticized the rise of kebab shops, with one coining the phrase that France was undergoing a “kebabization.”

The contrast is sharp with Germany, where the ever-present doner kebab is viewed as a positive symbol of Turkish integration into society. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been photographed slicing a doner on at least three occasions.

U.K. opposition chief Ed Miliband wrote to website British Kebab hailing the “hard work and dedication of businesses in this industry to bringing high quality food at affordable prices.”

No French politicians have done anything similar.

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