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Kebabs as a Political Statement in France

From the kitchen of the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Michelin two-star chef Thierry Marx is waging a mini-campaign against culinary racism. He is making kebabs.

 

In recent months, officials of the far right National Front have attacked the kebab, France’s most popular fast-food import from the East. For them, the proliferation of shops selling hunks of meat roasting on a spit is nothing less than a threat to the country’s identity.

 

“I grew up in a rough neighborhood of Paris with 100 nationalities of immigrants,” said Mr. Marx, who also runs a school for street chefs in eastern Paris. “Sometimes people give me a hard time when I cook like this. But for me, symbols are important. Street food is the driving force of integration.”

 

Mr. Marx’s kebabs, which he sometimes serves at Sunday brunch, are more designer than street in style. They involve shaping pieces of saddle of lamb rolled in bread crumbs and cumin into slim cones, filled with chopped dried fruit and herbs and sautéed in butter and oil. He serves them with hummus the consistency of peanut butter, yogurt sauce topped with chopped cucumber, a semolina grain and puffy pita bread.

 

Kebabaphobia surfaced in France in far-right-wing blogs in 2013 and as a campaign issue in local elections and elections for the European Parliament last spring.

 

“This attack has nothing to do with gastronomy,” said Philippe Faure, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of promoting French tourism and cuisine. “It is the manipulation of food for political ends. It is racism, pure and simple.”

 

As a candidate for mayor of the southern city Béziers, Robert Ménard, a co-founder of the Boulevard Voltaire website, evoked nostalgia for a bygone “traditional” era in France. In 2013, the website published an article imagining what France will look like in the year 2047. All the women were wearing headscarves, and kebabs had replaced traditional baguettes.

 

The opening of kebab shops “is too often accompanied by beards and veils,” the article said.

 

After he won the election, Mr. Ménard gave City Hall first rights over the purchase of any business that closes down in the historic center as a way to limit the proliferation of kebab shops.

 

“I want to be able to choose what shops will open in the center of the city,” he said in a phone interview. “French people are attached to their history, their culture. When the presence of foreigners is too visible, people feel threatened. Too many kebab shops are a threat to the historical image and the identity of the city.”

 

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The anti-kebab movement has not been endorsed by the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen; she prefers to stay above the fray when it comes to France’s culture wars. But the victory of 12 National Front-supported candidates in mayoral elections last spring has emboldened some of them to use food as a political weapon.

 

During the local election in the southern town Beaucaire, the National Front candidate Julien Sanchez complained that there were four kebab shops in the historic city center. He pledged that if he were elected, his City Hall would use its authority to block new “communitarian” businesses from opening.

 

After he won the mayoral election, The Associated Press quoted him as saying that the police would patrol kebab shops to ensure they weren’t fronts for illegal activities.

 

In the Loire Valley city Blois, several kebab shops have opened in recent months in the historic city center, the site of the centuries-old chateau that was home to seven kings and 10 queens. Blois’s National Front party regional secretary, Michel Chassier, is hoping to make some of the shops go away. “These places are incompatible with the image of Blois as a jewel of French history that attracts tourists from around the world,” Mr. Chassier said in a telephone interview. “Little by little, Blois is becoming a mundane, globalized place.”

 

Mr. Chassier paints an even darker picture of the kebab shop. “Are certain of them a cover for money laundering?” he asked. “I don’t frequent them, of course, but there is the issue of hygiene.”

 

Despite efforts like these, there is no evidence that the kebab industry is in decline. According to the market research company Gira Conseil, about 300 million kebabs are eaten a year in more than 10,000 outlets in France. Kebabs are third to only hamburgers and pizza in the fast-food diet of the French.

 

The kebab that the far right is targeting is different from the one Mr. Marx makes in his kitchen at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It is the basic Turkish doner kebab — a gyro in the United States. It is tightly flattened layers of meat (veal, chicken, turkey or lamb, or a combination) carved off a vertical rotating spit. It is served with chopped salad and a sauce in a flatbread (customers choose their own sauce), with or without a side of fries.

 

The doner kebab was introduced into France in the late 1980s by Turkish immigrants. It was popularized and transformed by France’s much larger North African population, which was accustomed to grilled meats served with flatbread.

 

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

But it has retained its reputation as takeout food — cheap and fast — prepared and served from small shops that require little investment, equipment or training of personnel. It is rarely considered French.

 

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RECENT COMMENTS

 

Steve Fankuchen 2 days ago

Though we had our bout of Freedom Friesitis, nonetheless America is not only tolerant of but embraces food from all over brought in by...

Bram 2 days ago

Someone should point out that coffee also came from the Middle East. I don't see the National Front protesting espresso! Racism is never...

Korgull 2 days ago

Kebabs rock, and the ones from a cart on the street are the best. Too bad the French are resisting, they are missing out.

SEE ALL COMMENTS  WRITE A COMMENT

In Germany, by contrast, with its large ethnic Turkish population, the doner kebab has been so integrated into the country’s cuisine that there are more kebab stands in Berlin than in Istanbul. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been photographed several times slicing giant kebabs.

 

And in Britain, the country’s kebab industry is recognized by the annual British Kebab Awards, whose judges include members of Parliament. Among the awards are “best takeaway kebab shop in London” and “best newcomer kebab restaurant.”

 

At Anatolie, a sit-down Turkish restaurant in the Paris suburb Montreuil, Philippe Celik, the owner, and his staff of five serve a dozen different kebabs, including doner, shish and kefte. Mr. Celik has been in the restaurant business since he came to Paris from the Kurdish region of Turkey in 1989.

 

“There will always be stereotypes attached to foreigners — ‘Oh, the Kurds are from the mountains and the Sicilians are from the Mafia,’ ” Mr. Celik said. “But who built this country? Who were the construction workers? It was the foreigners.”

 

The upscale butcher Hugo Desnoyer joined with a French chef and another French partner to open Le Grillé on the Right Bank of Paris in 2013. It serves “luxury kebabs,” including one made with milk-fed veal.

 

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COMMENTS

Since 2012, the Kebab Academy in the Normandy city St.-Lo has trained students in the craft of kebab making. One of its students last year was a 33-year-old butcher from Chengdu, China.

 

“For the French, the kebab attracts with its exoticism, low cost and ease of eating, even when you’re walking on the street, “ said Pierre Raffard, a French scholar of Turkish cuisine. “It’s a nomad product that won’t go away.

 

“For the right, the kebab has become a symbol of the invasion of Muslims in France. It is a powerful way to attack. What you eat is who you are. You are touching the most sensitive point of identity.”

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