PARIS - Toning up rhetoric against halal meat ahead of next month's election, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon called Monday, March 5, for Muslims and Jews to scrap their ritual slaughter in order to keep with modern society.
"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.
He said the "ancestral traditions" of ritual slaughter were justified for hygienic reasons in the past but were now outdated.
"We live in a modern society."
Halal meat has become a central them in electoral campaigns by Elysee hopefuls a month before the April-May election.
Far-right National Front leader Martine Le Pen said last month that all meat in Paris was halal, a claim denied by abattoirs.
The issue caught hold with President Nicolas Sarkozy calling for labeling all halal meat in France.
Sarkozy, who seeks re-election, also toughened tone on immigration, ringing defense of French civilization and secularism -- code words implying some of the five million Muslims here did not share these values.
Sarkozy's 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, criticized the comments for mixing up French Muslims with foreigners.
French Muslims are citizens like any other," she told Le Figaro newspaper.
Pierre Moscovici, a spokesman for Socialists candidate Francois Hollande, also said Sarkozy "is branding French Muslims in a sly way and echoing the National Front's issues."
But Fillon's call drew fire for stigmatizing both French Muslims and Jews.
"It will stigmatize Muslims and Jews as people who don't respect the interests of animals," Mohammad Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said, Reuters reported.
"That will raise tensions in society."
The concept of halal -- meaning permissible in Arabic -- has traditionally been applied to food.
Muslims should only eat meat from livestock slaughtered by a sharp knife from their necks, and the name of Allah, the Arabic word for God, must be mentioned.
According to the Jewish ritual, the animal is slaughtered by a sharp blade.
But the pro-animal activists argue that the slaughter causes the animal unnecessary pains.
Moussaoui warned that labeling eat as being prepared "without stunning" would feed resentment against the two minority religious groups using it.
"Every time shoppers go to the meat counter, they'll see meat described as 'not stunned'," Moussaoui said. "That will look as if there was cruelty towards these animals."
France is home to up to six million Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe.
Attitudes towards immigration and the Muslim minority have long been an important electoral issue in France.
An opinion poll on Sunday found that Sarkozy has lost ground to his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the past two weeks of campaigning.
The poll for LH2-Yahoo showed Sarkozy losing 3 percentage points to 23 percent while Hollande slipped 1.5 percentage points but remained well ahead on 30.5 percent of voting intentions for the April 22 first round.If the second round runoff were to be held today, Hollande would get 58 percent of votes and Sarkozy 42 percent.