PARIS - France's prime minister urged Muslims and Jews to consider scrapping their halal and kosher slaughter laws on Monday as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his allies stepped up their efforts to woo far-right voters.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon made the suggestion after Sarkozy called at the weekend for butchers to clearly label meat slaughtered according to religious laws and his allies warned immigrants might impose halal meat on French schoolchildren.
Fillon and other conservative leaders linked this tough stand on ritually prepared meat to issues such as immigration and French identity that the far-right National Front uses to tap into resentment against Europe's largest Muslim minority.
"Religions should think about keeping traditions that don't have much in common with today's state of science, technology and health problems," Fillon told Europe 1 radio while discussing the two-round presidential election ending May 6.
The "ancestral traditions" of ritual slaughter were justified for hygienic reasons in the past but were now outdated, he said. "We live in a modern society."
Mohammad Moussaoui, head of France's Muslim Council, said ritual slaughter was no more painful than modern methods and labeling meat as being prepared "without stunning" would feed resentment against the two minority religions using it.
"It will stigmatize Muslims and Jews as people who don't respect the interests of animals," he said. "That will raise tensions in society."
Le Pen's comments stimulate divisive debate
France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen launched the debate last month saying abattoirs around Paris only slaughtered meat the Muslim way. It turned out they mostly supplied local Muslim butchers and most meat sold in Paris came from further away.
The issue caught hold and Sarkozy's campaign countered with ever tougher statements on immigration and ringing defenses of French civilization and secularism -- code words implying some of the five million Muslims here did not share these values.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant warned last week that giving immigrants the right to vote in municipal elections, as the Socialist want, would lead to Muslims forming majorities on local councils and imposing halal meat in school canteens.
"This is quite possible, given the proportion of foreigners in some areas," he said when challenged on RTL radio on Monday.
Fillon seconded this view but Sarkozy campaign spokeswoman Natalie Kosciusko-Morizet declined to support it.
Sarkozy's former Justice Minister Rachida Dati, a Muslim, told the daily Le Figaro such comments "mix up French Muslims and foreigners. French Muslims are citizens like any other."
Hollande's spokesman Pierre Moscovici said Sarkozy "is branding French Muslims in a sly way and echoing the National Front's issues."