With an estimated five million Muslims, France has the biggest Islamic population in Europe. They've been in the country for decades, but the mainstream food industry is only just starting to cater to them.
Halal fast food has finally caught on in France
Customers walking through the aisles of some Paris area supermarkets are now likely to find halal meat and processed foods. Whether it's spicy ready-to-eat chicken wings, halal pate, or mock ham made from turkey, halal products are increasingly making their way into mainstream shopping venues. It may not seem like much, but for France this marks a striking change.
This was made evident last summer when the Zakia food brand aired the first nationally broadcast television commercial for halal food. It turned enough heads to make it into French newscasts. Halal means legal or lawful in Arabic and refers to foods that are sanctioned by Islamic authorities. Pork, blood and alcohol are not halal.
Food industry observers say supermarkets and the rest of the food industry are just following the money trail. "Five and a half billion euros are going to be spent on these kinds of products this year in France," said Abbas Bendali, the head of Solis, a market research firm specialized in ethnic niches. "There are five million potential customers. So this is more than a niche, this is a real consumer segment."
Young Muslims represent a significant consumer segment
New generation of customers
A few years ago, halal foods could only be found in small shops in low-rent immigrant neighborhoods. Now France's second largest supermarket chain, Casino, has hired Abderrahman Bouzid to manage the halal and traditional Muslim foods sold in its 10,000 stores. He said the market is growing thanks to a new generation of French Muslims.
"Those under the age of 40 don't have any hang-ups about affirming who they are; they want to be taken into consideration," Bouzid said, explaining that Muslim consumers are perfectly aware of their buying power and will prefer retailers that offer halal products. "They're saying 'If you are dismissive of my needs, by ignoring my customs and my preferences, I won't shop in your business'," he added.
Casino has even created its own halal product line, which it markets under the name Wassila. Others in the food industry are following suit. International brands such as Knorr, Maggi, Liebig and French firms like Duc and Fleury Michon have all started selling halal options. They now compete with established halal brands such as Zakia, Isla Delice and Medina.
Some of these brands and others recently attended a halal trade show in Paris, where visitors could find everything from halal foie gras and faux-bacon cheese burgers to microwaveable halal meals such as lasagna and chicken curry with rice. Antoine Bonnel started the fair six years ago, when it attracted far fewer exhibitors. This year, 100 companies participated.
Bonnel said he has noticed an attitude shift in the food industry. In the past, mainstream brands didn't want to be associates with halal because it was considered low-brow, he said, adding that French Muslims had little money and unenviable social positions.
"These people came from a very poor immigrant background," Bonnel said. "So the global image was a cheap image."
There were also misconceptions about the ritual slaughter of animals required for meat to be considered halal. And there were rumors that some of the taxes for this ritual could be funneled to questionable foreign causes.
French food companies are shedding their misconceptions about halal meat
Some of this unease came to the surface earlier this year, when fast food chain Quick revealed it had made eight of its 362 restaurants halal. Several French politicians criticized the move and the extreme-right National Front highlighted the company in its anti-immigrant rhetoric. But from a business perspective, the new buying power and improved social status of the young Muslim generation are sweeping misgivings to the side.
Sweeter than Champagne
The upcoming French launch of a non-alcoholic sparkling wine is just one example of that. The drink, called "Night Orient," is sold in what looks like a champagne bottle and provides people with the satisfying pop that comes with opening a bottle of real champagne.
"We decided to launch a festive drink for Muslims, completely alcohol free," said Arnaud Jacquemin, one of the drink's creators. "For weddings, for birthdays or the end of the year they have to drink orange juice, or soda, which isn't festive."
Jacquemin isn't himself Muslim, but while working in the beverage industry, he saw sales of non-alcoholic drinks consistently rise and realized this market was largely untapped.
Night Orient tastes far sweeter than real champagne. Focus group testing showed the version initially developed was a little too dry for consumers unaccustomed to drinking wine. So the formula was changed to better appeal to the Muslim palate.
The beverage had a successful test run in some Paris area supermarkets. The small company has since signed deals with four national retail chains to officially launch the beverage in France during Ramadan later this year.
Report: Genevieve Oger
Editor: Sam Edmonds