Is reasserting national and ethnic identity a bad thing? Food? Where does it end?
In France, a meal of intolerance
By Craig S. Smith The New York Times
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 2006
More than 200 political activists defied a police ban to demonstrate here last week, scurrying across the Boulevard Saint Germain and under the plane trees of Place Maubert to engage in their forbidden action: eating "pig soup" in public.
With steaming bowls of the fragrant broth soon passing through the crowd, Odile Bonnivard, a secretary turned far-right firebrand, climbed atop a dark sedan with a megaphone in hand and led the crowd in a raucous chant: "We are all pig eaters! We are all pig eaters!"
"Identity soup," as the broth has come to be called, is one of the stranger manifestations of a grass-roots backlash against the multiculturalism that has spread through Europe over the past 20 years.
People are challenging the care taken in Nazi-chastened Europe, and in France in particular, to avoid racial or religious insults of the sort that led to protests in the Islamic world this month after the publication of cartoons that most Muslims considered offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.
The movement began in the winter of 2003 when Bonnivard, a member of a small far-right nationalist movement called the "Identity Bloc," began serving hot soup to the homeless.
At first, she said, the group used pork simply because it was an inexpensive traditional ingredient for hearty French soup. But as the political significance of serving pork dawned on them and others, it quickly became the focus of their work.
Made with smoked bacon, and with pigs' ears, feet and tails, together with vegetables and sausages, the soup is meant to make a political statement: "Help our own before others."
The "others," Bonnivard explained, are non-European immigrants who she and her fellow far-right political activists say are sopping up scarce resources that ought to be used for descendants of the Continent's original inhabitants. In other words, the soup is meant to exclude those who do not eat pork - for the most part, Muslims and Jews.
"Other communities don't hesitate to help their own, so why can't we?" she asked, noting that Europe's Islamic charities serve halal food to disadvantaged Muslims and its Jewish charities operate kosher soup kitchens.
In France there is little tolerance for anything that challenges the republic's egalitarian ideals. But the authorities initially left the pork soup kitchen alone, shutting it down only once to avoid an altercation with a group of indignant French leftists.
That was before the riots that swept France in November, forcing the government to face up to the deep alienation felt by the country's Muslim youth. As winter closed in and other pork-soup kitchens run by similar-minded groups popped up in Strasbourg and Nice - as well as Brussels, Antwerp and Charleroi in Belgium - the authorities worried that they might be witnessing the start of a dangerous racist trend.
In December, Bonnivard said, a van of plainclothes police chased her soup- bearing car through the streets, and several busloads of police officers arrived to stop her group from setting up at their usual spot near the Montparnasse train station, citing "the discriminatory nature of the soup." She and her band filed an appeal.
A Paris police spokesman said the appeal is pending and will be decided "on the basis of the current regulations, in particular concerning risks to public order and incitement to racial hatred." The political soup servers have been playing cat and mouse with the authorities since then.
Bonnivard talks glowingly of the camaraderie engendered by her group's gatherings, whose motive, she said, is to defend European culture and identity. "Our freedom in France is being threatened," she said. "If we prefer European civilization and Christian culture, that's our choice."
She added: "Instead of wasting money on the tsunami or other foreign problems, we should start here. We have three million people unemployed."
A woman named Hélène, 61, who is not homeless but comes to Bonnivard's soup kitchen to eat because she has little money left for food after paying her rent, said: "At least here there are people who are of the same mind as me. The French, and the Europeans in general, roll over for foreigners, and particularly Islam."
This being France, most soup kitchens provide the downtrodden with a complete French dinner, including cheese and dessert. Bonnivard's group even offers a glass of red wine with every meal.
"The only condition required for dining with us: eat pork," reads the group's Web site, which bears the image of a wanted poster for a cartoon pig in a pot framed by the words, "Wanted, Cooked or Raw, Public Disturbance No. 1."
The site adds that, "cheese, dessert, coffee, clothing and candy go with the pork soup. No soup, no dessert."
Most of the homeless who came for the soup seemed most interested in filling their stomachs.
Michel Bewulf, 27, wearing a black knit cap and new black parka provided by Bonnivard's group, said he did not think the homeless who came to the soup kitchen did so because of the politics.
"There is pig in the soup," Lucien- Boun told a man of uncertain provenance who approached for a bowl.
She hesitated with her ladle as she spoke to his friend. "It's O.K.? You told him? He eats it? So it's all good. Here you go, bon appetit!"
The police initially granted permission for the "European solidarity feast" that Bonnivard's and the other rightist soup kitchens planned for last week. They later changed their mind, notifying her at her home at dawn of the morning of the march.
By evening, four vans filled with riot police were waiting at the group's designated meeting point outside a conservative Catholic church.
Bonnivard and her confederates huddled in a nearby café, plotting ways to serve their soup before the police could stop them.
"They're more afraid of us than any march by Islamists or Jews," Bonnivard's husband, Roger, later declared as people slurped soup around him. Bruno Gollnisch, the silver-haired number two of the far-right Front National, mingled in the crowd, calling the "persecution" of the soup kitchen a "betrayal of the French identity."
Other activists handed out slices of oily sausage as flags bearing the fleur de lis fluttered overhead.
"We're not yet living in a land of Islam," Bonnivard bellowed from atop the sedan.