Halal Fare Expands for French Muslims

Fouad Darraz used to find it hard to get the food he wanted. Born and raised in France, he prefers European cuisine. But as a Muslim, he wants the food to be halal—or permissible under Islamic law.

Lately, Mr. Darraz has found what he has been looking for at Hal’shop, a new supermarket in a Paris suburb that stocks frozen Chinese food, lasagna and foie gras—all prepared according to Muslim dietary rules.

“Finding good halal food can be difficult,” says Mr. Darraz, 30-year-old engineer whose parents immigrated to France from Morocco. “That’s because basically I don’t want North African food, I just want a pizza.”

The rising number of Muslims in France has sparked an often-heated debate about Islamic influence in French society. French authorities have sought to curb some outward expressions of Muslim identity. Head scarves were banned in public schools, and parliament is considering a prohibition on donning burqas— concealing head-to-toe garments—in public.

But companies here see a potentially lucrative business in supplying religiously sanctioned food to France’s growing ranks of young, professional Muslims, such as Mr. Darraz, who want to eat Western food that is halal.

“Until recently most major retailers viewed Muslims as exotic customers,” says Abbas Bendali, director of Solis, a consultancy that specializes in marketing to ethnic minorities. “Now they are realizing that they consume like other French people and they are catering for them.”

France has more Muslims—six million—than any other country in Europe. Sales of halal products totaled €4 billion ($5.08 billion) in 2009. Solis forecasts the market will expand about 10% this year, compared with 2% growth in overall food sales, Mr. Bendali says.

Supermarkets, packaged-food companies and restaurants have all been angling for a share of the halal market. Nestlé SA’s French operations will bring out five or six new halal products next year, adding to a line that already includes soups and chicken sausages.

Last year, supermarket chain Groupe Casino SA launched its own brand of halal products called Wassila. And in April this year, Pierre Martinet, France’s biggest prepared salad maker, launched a series of halal salads. Carrefour SA, the world’s second-largest retailer by sales after Wal-Mart, is considering launching its own line of halal foods, a spokesman said.

On Tuesday, fast-food chain Financière Quick SA, whose menu includes hamburgers, chicken nuggets and salads, said it will open 14 new restaurants that serve only halal food, in addition to the eight all-halal outlets it already has.

The expansion of halal offerings is in some case provoking a backlash. Claude Capillon, the mayor of Rosny-sous-Bois, east of Paris, where Financiere Quick has an all-halal restaurant, sent the company a letter saying it was discriminating against non-Muslim customers.

Some food companies are trying to give their halal products a low profile because of such reactions. Labeyrie, France’s biggest foie gras producer by revenue and a unit of food company Alfesca, launched a halal foie gras. Afterward, some bloggers accused it of funding Islamic extremists. Now it sells its halal pâté in a few stores and doesn’t advertise it on the company website.

Retailers in other European countries also sell halal food. But France is ahead of the curve, says Bruno El Kasri, the director of Nestlé’s French ethnic-food division. Mr. El Kasri says the children of Muslim immigrants to France have acquired local tastes more than Muslims in other parts of Europe.

“Here it isn’t about food which reminds people of their homeland,” says Mr. El Kasri. “It’s about local food which is compatible with their religion.”

For food to be considered halal, it must be prepared following religious rules. Slaughtered animals, for example, must have their throats slit by a Muslim, while a prayer is intoned. Following the guidelines strictly can raise costs by up to 20%, estimates Mr. El Kasri.

But the new generation of Muslims, often better off financially than their parents, are willing to pay the higher prices.

They have acquired the nickname “beurgeois”—from the words bourgeois and beur, slang for Arab. Fancy restaurants, such as Les Enfants Terribles, where patrons can get French haute cuisine prepared from halal ingredients have sprung up.

Rachid Bakhalq opened Hal’shop in March this year because, he says, the marketing efforts of larger French supermarkets sometimes still fall short in their efforts to appeal to Muslim customers.

The stores “treat us like Arabs—but we are French,” says Mr. Bakhalq. “They don’t respect their customer.”

Hal’shop, a spacious modern supermarket in Nanterre, sells only halal food—and plenty of French dishes. Top sellers include croissants stuffed with turkey and the lasagnas. Most of his clients are second-generation immigrants under 45 years old, he says.

Isabelle Boumi, 38, a health-care worker born in Morocco but raised in France, visits Hal’shop twice a week to stock up on food she can’t find elsewhere.

“They have everything here,” she says. “I especially come for the hamburgers and non-alcoholic beer.”

By Max Colchester, Wall Street Journal



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