ANALYSIS: Why does France’s interior minister think supermarket ethnic food isles are a threat to the nation?

In an unusual move, France's Interior Minister went on TV on Tuesday evening to decry the 'ethnic foods' of supermarkets. Ingri Bergo examines the roots of this declaration.

ANALYSIS: Why does France’s interior minister think supermarket ethnic food isles are a threat to the nation?
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. Photo: AFP

“It’s always shocked me to go into a supermarket and see that, when entering, there would be one type of ethnic food selection here and another one next to it,” declared Gérald Darmanin. 

The interior Minister was a guest on Tuesday's evening show of the French channel BFM, dedicated to the beheading of Samuel Paty, the 47-year-old teacher killed in a violent attack that has drawn parallels with the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terror attacks.

Like the satirical magazine before him, Paty had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and police have discovered ties between the attacker and Islamist radicals.

READ ALSO What we know about the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty

The incident has stirred up a ferocious debate on French state secularism, laïcité, leading President Emmanuel Macron to declare “war” on “political Islam.

Darmanin was invited to talk about all of this on Tuesday, but the comment that really seemed to stick with those who listened in was the one he made about ethnic supermarket aisles.


His words caused a stir on social media, prompting some to respond in outrage, while others – both French and internationals – mocked the minister for his words.



Comments like the one below declaring to 'soon to be put on a watchlist for buying fajitas' flourished on Twitter.


But why would the interior minister bring up ethnic food aisles in an interview about the government's response to a violent terror attack in the first place? 

The answer can be found in one little word the interior minister repeated several times during the interview: communautarisme.  

“This is how communautarisme begins,” Darmanin said about the ethnic food aisles.

Communautarisme is a French term that has no good English equivalent. It comes from communauté, which means “community”, and could be loosely translated to identity politics. 

Communautarisme is often used in a pejorative sense either to brush off criticism of France's universalist state model, or to criticise those perceived as failing to comply with its principles of laïcité – state secularism.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: Is France really 'colour-blind' or just blind to racism?

Is setting up a halal section in a Carrefour in France promoting separatism or just.. organising? Photo: AFP

'Fighting separatism'

When asked whether he wanted to forbid ethnic food aisles in supermarkets, Darmanin said it was not up to him and pushed the responsibility over onto big business owners, who should do their part in “fighting separatism”.

“I'm just saying that big French businesses that sometimes have organised direct marketing (..) want to earn money on communautarisme, and, to me, that's shocking,” he said.

Some cheered the interior minister and said his comments on ethnic food aisles were spot on.

“Darmanin is right. A kosher food aisle or halal food aisle is the beginning of communautarisme,” said Christophe Barbier, a columnist in the French news magazine Express, in a video he posted on Twitter.

“Of course, we need to be able to find halal food or kosher food in the normal, general aisles. But one dedicated aisle is the beginning of communautarisme, because we know that everyone who goes there is Muslim or Jewish,” he said.


Barbier said Muslim or Jewish food aisles could not be compared with Mexican or Breton food aisles, because “when you see someone go into the Mexican or Breton aisle, you don't say 'hey, that's a Mexican' or 'that's a Breton'.”


Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and law Phd candidate who specialises in religious freedom, human rights and civil liberties in France, Europe and North America, told The Local that the interior minister's words were “absurd.”

Communautarisme implies that there is a certain part of the population who live on the margins of society and refuse to integrate into the French Republic,” she said.

Darmanin was promoting rather than fighting separatism, she said, referring to his comment during the interview that halal butcher shops and kosher food stores should continue as they do. It was just supermarkets that were promoting communautarisme.

“The big problem with laïcité in France today is that it’s poorly understood. And this ignorance makes it instrumentalised,” she said, adding that, like others before him, Darmanin was twisting French state principles to fit into his preferred narrative.

“It's a strategy of divide and rule,” Alouane said.

To fully understand that, we need to first understand France's principle of state secularism, laïcité.

'Laïcité is freedom'

France separated church and state back in 1905 with a law that was meant to ensure a principle of state neutrality – no religion was to be favoured by the French state – and of religious freedom – all French citizens were free to practice their religion without state interference.

In return, religion also needed to be pulled out from the state. That’s why French public schools today do not allow pupils to wear religious icons in school, why there are no religious assemblies in schools and why public officials such as teachers and police officers cannot wear the Muslim hijab headscarf.

It is also why the far-right party Rassemblement National has not succeeded in its mission to decorate French town and city halls with Christian cribs at Christmas.

France’s state secularism ensures the neutrality of the state, not individuals, who are free to express their religion – any religion – in any way they want. Except for those who fill a public role, who must be neutral during work hours.

READ ALSO ‘My body, my choice' – French Muslim women speak out about headscarves

Supermarkets and other private businesses can, however, organise their shelves however they see fit without breaching with principles of secularism.

“This is an economic matter, not a state matter. And it doesn’t just concern kosher and halal products, it's the same for Corsican sausages, vegetarian products, and so on,” Alouane said.

“The problem we are seeing today is that we want to impose neutrality on individuals, which is the contrary of laïcite. Laïcité  is freedom,” she said. “Interfering with religious matters in this way is in itself a violation of state secularism.”

Darmanin later said he did not regret his comments.

“I don't have one word to take back. Not one. Yes capitalism also has a responsibility in society, not everything can be about money,” he wrote on Twitter.




Member comments

  1. Does this idiot include the British and American food on sale? Are Kosher foods included? This fool should expand his horizons and go and live in other countries or stop trying to collect Brownie points on the back of a hideous crime.

  2. Is it all ethnic foods or just one ethnicity’s food I do wonder? Here where I live the only ethnic food aisle is for British foods…

    Backwards thinking. Small wonder racism and extremism continue to be problems in France. They cannot face up to their brutality in north Africa and elsewhere and cannot therefore begin the very long process of healing as a society and growing into the fully intgrated multi-cultural nation they could be.

  3. I would be very happy if the ‘ethnic’ foods I buy in my supermarket were to be integrated into the general aisles. Proper marmalade with the confitures d’orange, Japanese noodles with (Italian!) pasta, soya sauce with other sauces …
    Where food is concerned, the French are, on the whole, boring. If the way Mamie prepared something was good enough for her, it is good enough for me. Very little evolution, therefore ‘ethnic’ products will never be acceptable because unnecessary.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Public opinion is ready’ – These French senators want to legalise marijuana

A group of 31 French senators of the Socialist, Green and Republican parties have come together to write a statement calling for the legalisation of marijuana in France.

'Public opinion is ready' - These French senators want to legalise marijuana

France is known for having some of the strictest laws regarding marijuana consumption in Europe – while simultaneously maintaining one of the highest rates of cannabis usage in the EU. 

A group of French senators – coming from the Socialist, Green and centre-right Les Républicains parties – are trying to change those laws, and have come together to call for marijuana to be legalised in France.

The group of 31 co-signed a statement published in French newspaper, Le Monde, on Wednesday, August 10th.

In the statement, the senators promised to launch a ‘consultation process’ to submit a bill to legalise marijuana “in the coming months.”

The proposition was headed by Senator Gilbert-Luc Devinaz, a member of the Socialist Party, and gained support from the party’s leader, Patrick Kanner.

READ MORE: The long and winding road towards changing France’s cannabis laws

A report by the Assemblé Nationale, which was published in May 2021, estimated that nearly 18 million French people (more than 25 percent of the population) had already consumed marijuana, and that an additional 1.5 million consume it regularly.

This, coupled with the 2019 finding that nearly one in two French people (45 percent) said they were in favour of legalisation, according to a survey by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT), helped strengthen the senators’ position.

“Public opinion is ready, the legislature must act,” they wrote.

Their senators argue that legalising marijuana in France will allow the authorities to better protect French citizens, saying that legalising would not require “minimising the health impacts of cannabis consumption” but rather would allow regulation similar to “public policies for tobacco, alcohol or gambling.”

For the group of 31 senators, the benefits of legalisation would involve a better control over the “health quality of products consumed,” “curbing trafficking in disadvantaged areas,” developing large-scale prevention plans,” and finally the taxation of cannabis products and redirection of law enforcement resources. Decriminalisation – in their opinion – would not be sufficient as this would simply “deprive authorities the ability to act,” in contrast to legalisation. 

READ MORE: Is France moving towards legalising cannabis for recreational purposes?

“In the long term, new tax revenues would be generated from the cannabis trade and from savings in the justice and police sectors”, which would make it possible to mobilize “significant resources for prevention as well as for rehabilitation and economic development,” wrote the senators.

In France, the conversation around cannabis has evolved in recent years – former Health Minister (and current government spokesman) Olivier Véran said to France Bleu in September 2021 that “countries that have gone towards legalisation have results better than those of France in the last ten years,” adding that he was interested in the potential therapeutic use of cannabis.

Currently, the drug is illegal in France. Previously, it fell under a 1970-law of illicit drug use, making it punishable with up to a year prison and an up to €3,750 fine.

However, in 2020, the government softened the penalties, making it possible for those caught consuming it to opt for an on-the-spot fine of €200.

There is also an ongoing trial involving 3,000 patients to test the impacts of medical marijuana usage, particularly with regard to pain relief.