Somewhere towards the end of the last century I took part in a literary festival in the beautiful old town of St Malo. No expense had been spared — in those days, which I imagine haven’t continued, France lavished public funds on cultural events. Participants from across the Atlantic as well as from London had their airfares paid, and I think a special train brought a metropolitan audience to the Brittany seaside from Paris. “Literature across frontiers” was the festival’s slogan — it celebrated travel writing — but this happy multiculturalism ended at dinnertime.
During the weekend, the commune (or perhaps the department or the region) laid on two magnificent feasts, featuring Breton specialities. On the first night it was shellfish and nothing but shellfish (well, a little mayonnaise and bread and butter on the side); on the second tout le cochon, in which the animal emerged on the plate as chops, ribs, sausages, etc. I asked one of our hosts what an observant Muslim or Jew or vegetarian was expected to eat, and then understood the meaning of the phrase “Gallic shrug”. Would anyone refuse to eat such good food? If so, that was their loss.
France has the largest number of Muslim citizens of any country in western Europe, and the third-highest Jewish population in the world. (The statistics for French vegetarians are less reliable, but they could be as high as one in 50.) Given all that has happened since those banquets in St Malo - a list that includes 9/11 and Heston Blumenthal — some liberalisation of the French menu might have been expected. In fact, to judge from my own small experience of eating in French cities, things are no longer quite as French as they used to be. There are minuses as well as pluses. On the one hand, eating well and reasonably cheaply is easier now in London than in Paris; on the other, the choice in Paris and other places has widened to include, say, South Asian and Turkish among the longer-established cuisines of France’s former colonies, such as Vietnam and Algeria. Of course, restaurants and schools are different entities, one a private enterprise and the other a public institution, but the argument over pork’s position on the school menu still comes as a surprise in a country that has established couscous as one of its favourite foods.
As Angelique Chrisafis wrote in the Guardian this week , “pork has become the new battleground in the nation’s uneasy debate over national identity and the place of Islam”. Pork is served at school lunches two or three times every month. By long-established convention, schools offer a non-pork alternative such as turkey sausages on those days for Jewish and Muslim children. In recent months, however, the rightwing mayors of several towns have announced that those alternatives will be abolished; in the near future it will be pork or nothing (or at most, a side dish of vegetables). Supporters of the change,which is backed by the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, argue that it preserves “neutrality” - that is, accords no special favours to religious groups in an avowedly secular state. France’s state schools have never provided either halal or kosher meat.
“If you want your children to have eating habits based on religion, go to a private faith school,” Sarkozy has said on TV. But then he intends to run for president in 2017, and needs to steal votes that might otherwise go to Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Isn’t secularism, the hallowed principle of la-cite, being deployed almost childishly to show Muslims who’s boss by pointedly ignoring their food taboo? In a year that began with the Charlie Hebdo attack , it’s hard not to think so, and to resist the further thought that France’s relationship with Islam is peculiarly confrontational, and like no other in Europe. More than pork is at stake; more than headscarves, too. During the past year, at least 130 students have been banned from classrooms for wearing clothes that school authorities judged to be too “conspicuously” religious — usually long black skirts. To cite the BBC’s Great British Bake Off winner, the headscarved Nadiya Hussain , as the symbol of a more pragmatic and enlightened society would be smug and foolish — Muslim women in France have also had success — but France’s adamantine secularism would surely have made her progress much less likely.
All of Europe is changing. The notion of “us” and “them” in which “they” are the people who change while “we” remain more or less the same is no longer secure. There may be several kinds of “us”, not all of them signed up to the same version of the nation’s story and beliefs, or content to be portrayed as enriching or troublesome additions to the main theme.
Fear has been raised everywhere by unprecedented and apparently unstoppable levels of migration and warnings from knowledgable people that the scenes on the shores of the Aegean and Mediterranean are only a foretaste of things to come. In these almost ungovernable circumstances, to remove non-pork options from school menus is a blind little gesture, narrowly political, insular and unhelpful, like Nero throwing a lanternful of oil on the conflagration in Rome. It will improve nothing and make nobody feel more secure.