Pork soup and Muslims: Recipe for racism?

Volunteers pour pork soup into a plastic bowl during a free soup distribution to the homeless in Paris.
Volunteers pour pork soup into a plastic bowl during a free soup distribution to the homeless in Paris.Jacques Brinon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pig’s tail, pig’s feet and other pig parts, all tossed into a pot with turnips, carrots and onions. Perfumed with smoked bacon and served steaming hot. Delicious!

But there’s trouble brewing in this broth.

Small groups linked to the extreme right are ladling pork soup to France’s homeless. Critics and some officials denounce the charity as discriminatory: because it contains pork, the soup is off-limits for Muslims.

Critics view the stew — dubbed “identity soup” by its cooks — as a cynical far-right ploy to penetrate the most vulnerable level of society while masking their intentions as humanitarian.

The associations offering the soup are satellites of Bloc Identitaire, a small, extreme-right movement that defends the European identity and, as its leader Fabrice Robert said, “the rights of the little whites.”

“It’s not that we don’t like Muslims. It’s a problem of critical mass,” Robert said in a telephone interview. “Just 1,000 Muslims in France poses no problem, but 6 million poses a big problem.”

5 million Muslims in France
The country’s Muslim population — the largest in western Europe — is estimated at 5 million, many of them French citizens.

The associations deny any ties to the far-right National Front party, which opposes Muslim immigration and built its reputation around the theme of “French first.”

Still, the National Front salutes the pork soup project.

“One has the right to be charitable toward whom one wants,” said Bruno Gollnisch, the party’s No. 2. Moves to forbid soup kitchens offering pork reveal authorities’ “alienation” from the French people, he said.

Pork soup is an age-old staple of the rural heartland from which all the French, at least in the national imagination, are said to spring.

The groups dishing up the soup say their victuals are no more than traditional French cuisine and deny they are serving up a message of racial hatred — a crime in France — or that they would refuse soup to a hungry Muslim or Jew.

In Strasbourg, pork soup was banned this month after officials deemed it could disrupt public order.

“Schemes with racial subtexts must be denounced,” said a statement by Strasbourg Mayor Fabienne Keller.

More than a dozen police surrounded volunteers at a recent soup distribution at Paris’ Montparnasse train station. Once police determined there was pork in the broth, they ordered the 10-gallon container sealed because the group had no permit.

There has been no outright ban on pork soup giveaways in Paris, but police have been using the permit issue as a way to shut down the kitchens and avert racial tensions.

Volunteers at the train station nodded their heads toward the line of police officers and mumbled about “thought police.”

“I want the French to feel at home in France,” said Louis Castay, 75, a volunteer and former National Front member who long held a seat on the Paris region’s municipal council.

“We want to put an end to this anti-French racism.” His remarks reflect the Bloc Identitaire’s view that needy French are wait-listed for social services in favor of immigrant Muslims.

Third winter for 'identity soup'
This is the third winter “identity soup” is being offered in Paris. But its spread to Nice, Strasbourg and Nantes as well as Belgium is raising eyebrows.

A leading anti-racism group has urged Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to ban pork soup giveaways throughout France.

For Bernadette Hatier, vice president of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, the real motive of the soup servers is to drum up far-right votes ahead of 2007 presidential elections.

National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the nation and the world in the last presidential vote in 2002 with his second-place showing behind President Jacques Chirac.

However, a leading expert on the extreme right dismissed any notion of a political future for the pork soup movement.

“They are trying to profit from a context of fear of immigrants” following November unrest in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, said Nonna Mayer.

But the proportion of French who think there are too many immigrants has fallen — from 73 percent in 1995 to 63 percent today, she said.

Many of the homeless lining up for pork soup seemed oblivious to the debate.

“All associations in Paris give out ham or bacon. It’s like roast beef in Britain,” said 45-year-old former farm worker Daniel, who declined to give his last name.