PARIS - France's prime minister told Jewish leaders on Wednesday he had not meant to stigmatize their community when he urged them to rethink ancient dietary laws, as he strove to defuse a fractious row about minorities in the run up to a presidential election.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon caused an uproar on Tuesday when he said the Jewish and Muslim "ancestral traditions" of ritual slaughter were outdated and unjustified.

It was the latest in a series of divisive comments by politicians about the religious practices of France's ethnic minorities, seen as a bid to attract right-wing voters ahead of a two-round election in April and May.

French Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim and Paris Central Consistory President Joel Mergui said Fillon reassured them during a meeting in his office on Wednesday that he had not did not intend to abolish halal and kosher meat slaughter in France.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who brought the issue of ritually prepared meat into his faltering reelection campaign last weekend, defended his ally Fillon on television on Tuesday evening and said the debate about religious slaughter customs was overdone.

"The prime minister clearly explained that he understood we were hurt," Mergui said after the meeting. "He explained very clearly that there was no intention to question ritual slaughter in France."

"He denied wanting to hurt us. He denied wanting to take aim at religion or the Jewish community," Bernheim added.

Fillon was due to receive French Muslim Council President Mohammad Moussaoui and Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur on Thursday to give the same message to the Muslim community.

Moussaoui said on Tuesday that Muslims would not "serve as scapegoats in this campaign."

An about-turn by the government

France's 5 million Muslims and 600,000 Jews are the largest such religious minorities in Europe. Not all eat halal or kosher food, but the anti-immigrant National Front has seized on the growing popularity of halal meat to appeal to far-right voters.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen said last month that all meat sold in and around Paris was halal. It later emerged that the few abattoirs in the area slaughtered animals the Muslim way and some of that meat was sold unmarked in non-Muslim shops.

Sarkozy called on Saturday for meat labels to show if the animal was stunned before slaughter, in accordance with a European Union directive to lessen pain, or was conscious when its throat was slit according to Muslim or Jewish custom.

Mergui and Bernheim described Sarkozy's statement as "a brutal about-turn" from its previous policy of allowing butchers to sell surplus halal and kosher meat to the general public without indicating the method of slaughter.

"That is a form of stigmatization that will make prices rise," they said. Meat industry officials say halal and kosher meat could become more expensive if they could not sell surplus cuts unmarked in supermarkets and neighborhood butcher shops.

In his television interview, Sarkozy tried to reassure Jews and Muslims by saying the meat labeling should be voluntary.

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