PARIS (AP) — The French butcher who cuts and tresses your meat with care, and serves as city dwellers' link to the land, is falling on hard times, unable to find new blood to keep his iconic image alive — as supermarkets and Arab butchers selling halal meat at cheaper prices thrive.
The changes in this age-old industry reflect profound economic and societal shifts gnawing at France's core, and have catapulted the butcher shop into the debate before presidential elections in April and May.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has lamented the decline of the traditional French butcher and now wants all meat clearly marked — halal, kosher or French — while Prime Minister Francois Fillon has suggested the ritual slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews is out of sync with modern times.
The conservative leaders awoke to the topic after extreme-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen contended that Muslims have a stranglehold on butcher shops — and on the French way of life. With polls suggesting Sarkozy will lose to Socialist rival Francois Hollande, the president is racing after third-place Le Pen's voters to bolster his chances at a second term.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire released data making clear that Le Pen was wrong when she said last month that all meat sold in the Paris region is halal. However, halal butcher shops run by Muslims have long been on the rise in the country with Western Europe's largest Muslim population — while traditional butcher shops are in decline.
So worrisome is that downturn that one such butcher, who specializes in top quality meats, poses nude for calendars to make the profession more sexy to the young. For his 2012 calendar, Yves-Marie Le Bourdennec is seen sitting on a stool, his back drawn with cuts like a cow — with a saucy but stern school marm wielding a pointer at his side.
In a civilizational contrast, Muslim butchers, most with origins in former French colonies in North Africa, may play recordings of the Quran on Friday, Islam's holy day — when they remain open — or display a Hadith, a saying of the prophet, pinned to a shop wall.
Muslim butchers, like their Jewish counterparts' kosher version, sell meat and poultry from animals drained of blood after being "sacrificed" without being stunned.
"Commercially and economically, (halal) is something that counts ... It weighs and it will weigh more and more," said Dominique Unger, head of the French Confederation of Butcher Shops, Charcuterie and Caterers, founded in 1894.
The traditional corner butcher, meanwhile, is getting harder to find.
There were 40,000 butchers in France after World War II but only 20,000 in the past decade, Unger said, even as France's population has grown by millions. Despite unemployment of nearly 10 percent — a major campaign topic — there are 4,000 unfilled job offers in the industry today, he said.
"There's no competition," even with Muslim butchers who set up shop in heavily immigrant neighborhoods — and fill a need.
The butchers' confederation has published a book, "Louchebem," meaning butcher in French slang, proclaiming the virtues of the French butcher with pieces by writers, designers and others.
The explosion of supermarkets around France has eaten into the butchers' profession, but that has now stabilized, Unger said, pointing to another problem: The butcher shop business has a "retrograde image," that of "old France," and today's youth just aren't seduced.
"They're too spoiled," said Gerard Provost, a butcher for the past 50 years who started at the age of 15 in his native Normandy. Like others, Provost, who works with his wife in a Left Bank neighborhood of Paris with few immigrants, stresses the long hours and sometimes physically demanding work that being a butcher entails.
Muslim butchers agree.
Non-Muslim youth "want easy money, luxuries, chateaux," said Youssef Ait-Ben Ali, 49, an employee of Moroccan origin in a halal shop in a heavily immigrant working class neighborhood of northern Paris.
"People prefer to dream with a magic wand," he said. "But those days are over. You have to work more now."
In low-income neighborhoods, Muslim butchers fill the void, buying out shops from retiring traditional French butchers. They are willing to work the long hours over six days, often in a family arrangement which allows them to divide up the work, said Farid Nahim, who owns the Boucherie Nouvelle du Marche (New Market Butcher).
In his refrigerated room, clearly bloodless carcasses of calves and lamb hanging from hooks are stamped to show they have been slaughtered ritually.
Unger, of the butchers' confederation, said no figures for the number of Muslim butchers are available because they aren't organized.
The Agriculture Ministry has said that 14 percent of the total tonnage of animals killed in France are slaughtered ritually.
"We're here because there's a demand," Nahim said, stressing that non-Muslims are loyal customers, too.
Muslim butchers contend their meat is tastier with less risk of contamination because there can be no blood toxins. They also point out their lower prices.
Ait-Ben Ali says that at his shop, simply called the Muslim Butcher Shop, a cote de boeuf sells for about €16 per kilogram (about $9.50 a pound), compared to up to €34 ($44.59) per kilogram (around $20 a pound) at a traditional French butcher.
By becoming small entrepreneurs, like butchers, Muslims are able to avoid the discrimination many face in job searches, said Patrick Simon, a sociologist with the National Institute for Demographic Studies.
"It's a solution to avoid discrimination in the job market and fulfills an important function," he said. As butchers, they are dependent on no one and work with other Muslims.
"Muslims are increasingly becoming entrepreneurs," Simon said, noting their corner on the market of small neighborhood grocery stores in big French cities, bought up in the 1950s and 1960s. If you live in Paris and you need last-minute milk, eggs or a bottle of wine, you "go to the Arabs," an expression that has entered the French vernacular.
Will halal butchers make equal inroads?
That's the question that has roused presidential candidates on the right. In French elections it is standard procedure for the mainstream right to ogle far-right voters, often allowing the far-right to set the tone.
Le Pen, who claims that French civilization is under the sway of a conquering Islam, lashed out at what she said was the omnipresence of halal meat in the Paris region, and the cruelty of ritual slaughter.
Fillon, the prime minister, suggested that French Jews and Muslims reflect on "ancestral traditions" which "don't have much to do with the state of science, technology and health issues today." His remarks drew such shock that he ended up apologizing personally to leaders of both religions in France.
Sarkozy, after his remarks caused concern, ultimately asked that butcher products be labeled halal or kosher on a voluntary instead of mandatory basis. He didn't say there was anything wrong with halal meat, just that it should be clearly labeled.
For butcher Ait-Ben Ali, there is an easier solution: "They shouldn't be mixing politics and meat. They should find the real problems."