France loves its meat. What happens when a mayor tries to take it off the menu?

A farmer walks a cow on the square facing the city hall of Lyon on Feb. 22 during a demonstration to protest the city majority's decision to keep meat off city schools' menu. (Olivier Chassignole/AFP/Getty Images)
A farmer walks a cow on the square facing the city hall of Lyon on Feb. 22 during a demonstration to protest the city majority's decision to keep meat off city schools' menu. (Olivier Chassignole/AFP/Getty Images)

In France today, when a mayor decides to take meat out of the school menus in his city, it becomes a matter of national debate across the political landscape.

Last month, Lyon Mayor Grégory Doucet announced the city would stop serving meat in school cafeterias. Meant to be temporary, the official goal of the policy is to reduce food options to more easily adhere to social distancing rules. In fact, animal proteins will not even be totally banned since cheese, fish and eggs will still be served.

But it was enough to spark national furor. First farmers protested, driving their heavy vehicles and livestock in front of the of the city hall. The consternation then reached the ranks of government when Julien Denormandie, the minister of agriculture, urged Doucet to “stop putting ideology in our children’s plates.” He was backed by Minister of Interior Gérald Darmanin, who denounced on Twitter a “scandalous ideology” as well as an “unacceptable slur” to French farmers and butchers.

The entire controversy represents a broader shift underway in France.

Food is a serious matter for the French. And Lyon is known for being the epicenter of French gastronomy, which holds a particular place in French culture and has been included in the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Meat is a central part of the cuisine, so French meals are generally structured around it and named after the meat product.

But the famous French way of life, which was already in the process of changing, has been severely damaged by the closure of the restaurants during the pandemic, with society no longer able to celebrate food publicly.

Though the consumption of meat increased in the 20th century, it dropped 12 percent within a decade between 2007 and 2016. In France, multiple health scandals, such as the mad cow disease in the 1990s and the avian flu in the 2000s, have contributed to distrust against the food industry. Groups promoting the well-being of animals, such as L214, regularly expose the terrible conditions faced by animals in sordid slaughterhouses. And lately, the rise of a new generation of green elected officials has popularized the appreciation of more environmentally-friendly production.

Yet, the power of agriculture lobbies remains very strong. When Nicolas Hulot, the former minister of ecological transition suddenly resigned from the governmentin 2018, he spoke about enduring a painful final 12 months in the role, “because the lobbies are out there.”

European policies to support agriculture are meant to support the largest farms, regardless of the content of their production, favoring intensive farming rather than small and ecological farms. Across the European Union, 20 percent of farmers (the biggest) get 80 percent of the subsidies. Despite that support, distress is increasing among farmers, who are facing difficulties selling their products at a fair price. Because of the worryingly high rate of suicide among farmers, France’s Senate has created a platform to collect testimony.

These real issues have been drowned out by yet another controversy over culture and identity. The French are still very tied to the image of those who personify our culture and values in the collective imagination — and farmers are a large part of that imagery. But that myth of French identity is being challenged not only by green politicians, but also by the fact that France’s population is becoming more and more diverse.

In that context, Doucet’s decision raised suspicions that it was an attempt to cater to the restrictions of Muslim children, who can only eat meat that meets halal standards. This was partially confirmed by the city hall, which said that meat-free diets would suit all dietary restrictions that do not include meat, whether religious or not. In a climate of Islamophobia, such a consideration was somehow interpreted as challenging the French core identity.

The two members of the government argued that suppressing meal was “shameful from a social point of view” because “lots of children only have the school restaurants to eat meat.” This is a common misconception that has been undercut by several studies, which show that the poorest households were the one with the highest rates of meat consumption. In reality, fresh fruits and vegetable are less accessible to low-income households, and therefore should be the priority in schools.

Nostalgia plays a large role in the representation of what a decent French meal should be, but habits are evolving. And the idealization of a mythological way of life does not fit new environmental standards, nor does it serve the farmers’ long-term interests.

Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.

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