Justice Minister Christiane Taubira is contesting a November ruling by an administrative tribunal in Grenoble that the local Saint-Quentin-Fallavier prison should provide halal meals on the basis that failing to do so would violate Muslim prisoners' right to practice their religion.
Pending a ruling on the principle involved, the justice ministry sought a suspension of the tribunal's decision on the grounds that it was impractical for the prison to completely change its catering arrangements.
That argument was rejected last week by an appeals court which ruled that the prison could easily organise a tender for an outside caterer to supply halal meals.
"It is a new setback for the justice minister," Alexandre Ciaudo, the lawyer for the prisoner who brought the case, said Tuesday. "The prison now has to implement the ruling."
The French government is arguing that the prison was doing enough to ensure the respect of religious freedom by ensuring that prisoners always have the option of either vegetarian meals or ones without pork, which is proscribed for Muslims.
While the 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 the 2012 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Prime Minister François Fillon subsequently caused outrage by suggesting French Jews and Muslims should abandon their "outdated ancestral traditions" regarding food and diet.
And back in April 2013, 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.
The debate has been mirrored by higher-profile disputes over the wearing of veils in France, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe.
Any form of clothing linked to religious observance is banned from French state schools and since 2011 the wearing of full-face veils in public has been outlawed.