Spend even a couple days as a tourist either exploring Paris or roaming around the small towns and villages that dot the countryside, and one comes to a rapid and immediate conclusion: The French have an obsession with food — its production, as well as its preparation — that rivals our most heated political partisanship.
French cuisine is rightly considered among the most sophisticated in the world, and a country that has secured patents and copyrights on various wines, champagne and cognac, takes seriously the fare that occupies the center of the plate, as well.
Such dishes as cassoulet (a stew made with pork skins), foie gras and boeuf bourguignon are delicacies in the United States, but staples in France.
As a result of those national passions, a fight between French butchers and the country’s vegan community is seriously heating up. According to The Guardian newspaper, the French Federation of Butchers (known as the Confédération Française de la Boucherie) sent a letter to government officials claiming that several butcher shops have been vandalized with anti-meat graffiti in what is being called “a guerilla campaign of intimidation” against meat purveyors.
“Butcher shops around the country have been sprayed with fake blood and vandalized by vegan activists,” the newspaper reported. “‘Stop speciesism’ was daubed over one rotisserie in Lille [about 150 miles north of Paris near the Belgium border] and its windows were broken.”
Of course, the recent decisions made by the French parliament to abandon a proposal to introduce one vegetarian dish each week in schools and a vote to ban of the use of meat-related terminology, such as sausage or bacon, for plant-based vegetarian or alt-meat analog products, has only added fuel to the fire.
An Attack on Tradition
The ongoing attacks on French butcher shops have prompted federation leader Jean-François Guihard to demand police protection. In the letter sent to Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb, Guihard described the vandalism as “terrorism.”
“The attacks suffered by butchers [and] charcuteries and the whole industry are a form of terrorism, pure and simple,” Guihard said, “because it is terror that a few individuals and organizations are sowing, with only one purpose: to … disappear an entire part of the French culture, which owes so much to the knowledge of its butchers, charcutiers, growers, fishmongers [and] cheese mongers.”
France has more than 18,000 artisan butchers and charcutiers (meat processors), many of them operating small, family-owned shops and stores that are centerpiece businesses in the towns and villages where they’re located.
They are part of a deep-seated culinary tradition going back centuries, which no doubt informed Guihard’s further comments.
He complained about “excessive media coverage over vegan lifestyles” and said that federation members are “deeply shocked that part of the population wants to impose its way of life [and] its ideology on the vast majority of the populace.
“Beyond the physical and economic damage, the moral prejudice faced by these businesses is huge,” he added.
I have a news flash for Monsieur Guihard: no amount of police protection, nor government regulations, will dampen the animus that vegans harbor toward the meat-eating majority. Whether or not animal and vegetarian activists are properly labeled as terrorists, a more productive response would be to take the high road.
After all, there’s room — even within traditional French cuisine — for both meat and veggie creations. Moreover, the majority of people who purchase and consume vegetarian foods do as part of a diet that includes meat, poultry and dairy products. They’re neither strict vegans nor hardcore carnivores, and to be truthful, virtually every culinary tradition includes creative use of both plant-based and animal foods.
Rather than label the fringe extremists as terrorists, thus alienating a large percentage of the public that may not agree with vandalism but doesn’t feel any compulsion to align with animal agriculture, why not promote accommodation? Why not point out that dietary choices are a good thing, and that vegetarian options are a positive addition to French (or any other) cuisine?
I would take solace in Guihard’s closing statement: “For goodness sake, let us work in peace,” he said. “For goodness sake, let French consumers eat what they like.”
Vive la différence, and bon appétit.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.