A pack of shoppers swarm supermarket shelves, cheerfully snapping up packages of prepared lasagna, ravioli and paella as they sing the products' praises. Sounds just like a normal evening TV ad. And it is, only this one features ethnic-Arab actors in a commercial for halal food in France. A first in its own right, the ad is already a remarkable sight on French TV. But even more surprising is the reaction it's gotten or, rather, hasn't gotten. In a country that's usually quick to burst into outrage over the spread of Islam into secular society, these halal-food ads have been playing without a peep from the public.
The ad campaign by Panzani-owned, Lyon-based food brand Zakia Halal is the first ever mass-market promotion of halal food to France's estimated 5 million Muslims. The TV spots kicked off on Aug. 17 to coincide with the start of the holy month of Ramadan and have been running on most of France's largest television channels since. The $430,000 campaign will be put on pause Sept. 2, then resumed as Ramadan comes to an end later this month and the feast of Eid el-Fitr approaches. Thus far, the spots have gotten a mostly supportive reaction from Muslim shoppers and the French media, with the daily Le Parisien trumpeting "Halal Takes a Spot on TV."
What's astounding is how long it took for any of France's numerous makers of halal food products to embrace this kind of mass marketing. Studies done by ethnic-marketing consultancy Solis Conseil in Paris estimate that French Muslims currently purchase about $5.7 billion worth of specialized foodstuffs and related products a market that's been increasing nearly 15% annually for almost a decade. Solis has also found that nearly 94% of all Muslims in France with North African roots by far the largest group of Muslims in the country buy exclusively halal food. A recent poll by the Ifop agency found that 70% of Muslims in France are observing Ramadan this year leaving little doubt as to the thinking behind the timing of Zakia Halal's groundbreaking ad campaign.
"Even though people have to fast during the day, Muslims tend to eat more and better when they can eat during Ramadan, which is why it is traditionally a period of peak consumer activity," explains Abbas Bendali, director of Solis Conseil. "Zakia's timing makes good sense because people tend to be short on time during Ramadan and will use prepared dishes along with fresh food for meals. And when you consider the size and value of this demographic, using mass-market methods to promote halal products becomes logical too."
But it's also potentially inflammatory, given the tendency of the French to view overt manifestations of Islamic faith as a threat to the nation's tradition of secularity. After all, France is the nation that felt obliged to protect itself against the supposed spread of Islam by passing a 2004 law prohibiting students from wearing religious symbols in public schools a measure primarily aimed at Islamic headscarves. Earlier this year, legislators demanded a legal ban on burqas, a form of apparel that President Nicolas Sarkozy damned as "not welcome on French territory." That legal prohibition was regarded as overkill, however, when a police intelligence study estimated that fewer than 370 women in the nation of 65 million people actually wear the complete head, face and body covering.
Even so, the French media worked themselves into a lather in July when one woman demanded the right to swim in a burqini a one-piece that resembles a wet suit in a public pool that denied her entrance. Given that, it's little wonder that the approval or disinterest that the French public has shown the Zakia Halal ads has been a source of contentment and relief to many French Muslims.
"So much negativity has recently been attached to so-called Muslim topics that there's a certain satisfaction that ads for halal products are being greeted as normal," Bendali says. "After so many years of being ordered to integrate into French society and culture, Muslims are interpreting the reaction to these ads as a sign that integration may finally be working in both directions. It appears the rest of France is starting to regard things like halal food as part of the new mix."
In fact, it has been for quite a while though marketers and distributors have tended to keep quiet about it. For most of the past decade, France's main supermarket chains have carried halal food to keep up with demand from consumers. That has increased so much that those supermarkets have recently launched their own halal brands to rival those of food groups and are beginning to display them in dedicated halal sections as they have kosher food for years.
Still, don't expect to see the shelves stocked with Western versions of traditional North African fare, like microwaveable couscous or ready-made tagine. Those are things French Muslims still prefer to make themselves. Instead, what they're snapping up are more exotic dishes like lasagna, beef Bourguignonne and hachis Parmentier à la halal bien sûr.