Should secular French schools go vegetarian?

The new school year in France has kicked off more controversy around whether Muslim and Jewish pupils should be offered alternatives to pork. One MP believes obligatory vegetarian meals is the way forward in a strictly secular country.

Should secular French schools go vegetarian?
The new school year has brought fresh controversy around whether to serve up alternatives to pork for Jewish and Muslim pupils. Photo: AFP

To serve or not to serve pork in the canteens of France's secular state schools?

As a new school year begins, the divisive issue has once again come to the fore as mayors from three towns have banned non-pork options in canteens to respect the country's strict divide between education and religion, triggering accusations of discrimination.

Enter Yves Jego, a lawmaker who wants to introduce a draft bill making vegetarian meals obligatory in schools as a pragmatic way of bypassing secularity rules and accommodating Jews and Muslims who do not eat pork, or Hindus, many of whom shun meat in general.

“Can we force a Catholic child to eat meat on Good Friday because nothing else is available, or a Jewish or Muslim kid to eat pork?,” the lawmaker from the centrist UDI party asks on his online petition, which has garnered more than 123,000 signatures so far.

“I will… submit a draft bill to make vegetarian menus obligatory in all canteens as an alternative to daily menus to allow those who do not want meat or fish, whatever the reason, to eat healthily.”

'Just don't eat pork'

The debate over what to serve children in school canteens has raged on and off for years in France, which prides itself on its 1905 law separating the state and religion, but also has Europe's largest Muslim and Jewish populations.

There are no overarching guidelines that govern what should be put on children's plates and it is up to more than 34,000 mayors around the country to take their own decisions.

Many schools offer an alternative when pork, or more generally meat, is served to tacitly cater to religious requirements but halal or kosher meals are shunned as going against secularity.

The only city that serves up halal meals is Strasbourg in the northeastern region of Alsace, which was under German rule in 1905 when France voted in favour of the separation of state and religion and is therefore not bound by secularity laws.

For Isabelle Maincion, who looks after the school meal portfolio at the Association of French Mayors, there is no debate to be had on whether to serve pork or not, let alone halal or kosher.

“We have to respond to regulations currently in place today, which are to serve well-balanced meals,” she says.

“We don't have to worry about any other demands at school, which is secular.    “Pork is not served up that often, and parents know it. The days when there is pork, children just don't eat pork, and parents make up for the lack of protein in the evening, it's that simple.”

Deserting public schools

Not so for Francois Pupponi, the mayor of the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, known for its ethnic diversity and large Jewish population.

“Those who have such extreme positions… don't understand that they are achieving the exact opposite of what they are looking for,” he said.

“They will end up with a secular public school, but there will be no-one left. All those who are religious will leave, and public schools will no longer be a place where people mix, a place of dialogue and education for all.”

Pupponi said many Jewish children now attended private schools due in part to the lack of kosher meals in public establishments.

“I have parents who have told me they want to put their children in public school, but they want them to eat kosher. And today, we're starting to see the same phenomenon with Muslims.”

So what about the vegetarian option that Jego is championing?

Too costly, tough to create well-balanced menus and children will probably avoid them, say critics.

But the central city of Saint-Etienne has served them up since January after new mayor Gael Perdriau realised that some children did not eat all their food for religious reasons.

The additional meals come at no extra cost for parents or authorities.

Now, 15 percent of school children pick the vegetarian option, he says, which on a typical day might consist of a lentil salad, omelette with carrots and rice, cheese and fruit.

“This solution addresses different issues — vegetarian or religious issues — without getting into debates that I find a little unhealthy, where people argue that if you don't like a certain type of food, then don't eat it,” Perdriau said.

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French turning away from meat towards vegetarianism

The land of boeuf bourguignon appears to be deep in soul-searching about whether or not to eat meat as more and more French people turn towards a vegetarian diet.

French turning away from meat towards vegetarianism
Photo: AFP
It's perhaps not surprising that vegetarianism is popular in France right now.
Just this week, another horrific video from inside a French abattoir made headlines across the nation, showing animal cruelty at the highest degree. 
It was the third video of its kind in recent months, and prompted the agriculture minister to order inspections in all of France's slaughterhouses. 
The videos are enough to put you off your meaty dinner – and that's exactly what's been happening with the French.
Officially, only around 3 percent of the French classify themselves as vegetarians – a figure that hasn't changed for several years. But, according to Elodie Vielle-Blanchard, the head of the Vegetarian Association of France, there is a serious shift underway.
“We think there is a huge percentage of the population that is flexitarian, meaning they've really reduced their intake of animal meat and aspire to take on a vegetarian lifestyle,” she told BFMTV
“And ten percent of French people can see themselves becoming a vegetarian,” she added. 
A flexitarian is someone who consciously eats less animal products, whether for financial, health, or environmental reasons. 
Eight top vegetarian restaurants in France
(Why not try a vegetarian baked stuffed portabello today? Photo: Jean-François Chénier/Flickr)

She added that the days of associating vegetarians and vegans with hippies were long over, and that the diet was no longer a “niche”. 
“The representation of vegetarianism has really evolved,” she said.
“It's now seen as a pleasant lifestyle that's healthy and trendy. We are seeing a lot more people interested in learning how to cook vegetarian food, even if they're not wanting to become vegetarians.”
“The fact alone that so many people are interested is a positive sign, and shows what may be a major development in the vegetarian population in the coming decades.”
Being a vegetarian in France
While many vegetarians living in France will tell you it's a tough lifestyle choice, it's definitely getting easier. 
There's even been a considerable surge in the number of 100 percent vegetarian or vegan restaurants, and France can boast 1,691 of them today, compared to 1,228 just six months ago.
And there are 290 today in Paris alone, compared to 218 in October, according to the healthy eating guide Happy Cow.
Even though it remains much easier to stumble upon a typical French restaurant packed to the rafters with charcuterie and cheese, animal activists are urging the public to take the leap and climb aboard the vegetarian train. 
A spokesperson from animal rights group L214, which has been behind the release of the recent abattoir footage, told The Local that now is the time to ditch the meat.
“We want people to aware, to think about their own responsibility, and of course, to think about stopping eating meat,” she said, after footage of animal cruelty was released from one of France's “organic” slaughterhouses. 
“These animals are sentient beings after all, just like cats and dogs,” she said.