The administrative tribunal in the southern city of Grenoble has ordered the nearby prison at Saint-Quentin-Fallavier to provide its Muslim inmates with halal meals, according to French media reports this week.
The ruling is a legal landmark in France, being the first time a judicial institution has held that the country’s correctional system is obliged to pay for food that complies with religious rites.
“It’s a very important decision,” said Alexandre Ciaudo, a lawyer representing a Muslim inmate, named only as Adrien K., who had in March requested that halal meals be provided by the prison.
According to French daily Le Parisien, the institution’s director had rejected the request outright. In response, Adrien K. filed suit with authorities in the Isère department, near the French Alps.
In a decision rendered on November 7th, the court in Grenoble upheld the inmate’s request, and condemned the prison director for breaching Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the free expression of religious beliefs.
The court went further, however, stating that France’s strict secular tradition (known as “laïcité”), as well as guaranteeing the separation of church and state, also “requires that the state guarantee free religious exercise.”
The administrative tribunal also pointed out that the logistics of providing halal meals were not a barrier to the prison.
“There would be no prohibitive additional cost to the establishment, and no particular technical difficulty,” said the ruling.
The prison at Saint-Quentin-Fallavier now has a maximum of three months to make arrangements for providing “regular” halal meals to Muslim inmates.
'Outdated ancestral traditions'
While this month’s ruling marks the first time a prison has been legally obliged to provide religiously-compliant meals, the issue of halal meat has long been a controversial one in France.
In the run-up to last year’s presidential election, far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen launched a fierce row by claiming all meat from abatoirs in the Paris region was prepared using Islamic halal traditions, and that non-Muslim consumers in the capital were being misled.
Then-president Nicolas Sarkozy waded into the row, suggesting that meat should be labelled to tell consumers how the animal was slaughtered, a proposal rejected by Jewish and Muslim groups, who feared being stigmatized by the labelling.
Then-French Prime Minister François Fillon subsequently caused outrage by suggesting French Jews and Muslims should abandon their "outdated ancestral traditions" regarding food and diet.
Back in April, the principal of a school near Paris was forced to backtrack after announcing that all pupils would be obliged to eat meat, and none would be allowed an exemption for religious reasons.
Jews and Muslims are forbidden from eating pork under their religious dietary laws, but that didn't prevent the principal from sending out a strongly-worded letter to parents, saying: “I remind you that your child is being educated in a school in the Republic, and that secularism – one of the foundations of the Republic – must be respected in its entirety.”
Just a month earlier, The Local reported how Jewish and Muslim parents in the south-western town of Arveyres were outraged when their children's school announced that the canteen would no longer be serving a substitute for pork.