It's a rainy afternoon in Paris and I'm sitting across from one of the city's top chefs, Jacky Ribault, to talk about the French presidential election. An imposing but affable man with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair, Ribault is more of an expert on French cuisine than French politics. But in France, the two are virtually inseparable.
"Politics and food make a good concoction," the Michelin-starred chef tells me. "In this country, you can't be in politics if you don't love food."
France may go to the polls for a final round of voting on Sunday, but political pundits have already begun to dissect every moment of centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen's presidential bids. The scandals and triumphs of their campaigns will be analysed for months to come, but one ingredient has been missing from post-election discussion: Food.
It's importance shouldn't be underestimated. In France, a country where, according to historian Marc Knobel, cooking is "part of our national identity," food and politics are thoroughly intertwined. And with the 2017 presidential campaign pitting nationalism against multiculturalism and globalisation versus protectionism, it became more important than ever.
"Political power in France has always made the question of food into a political issue," Paul Aries, historian and author of A Political History of Food, tells me. "But I think that for the first time in many years—in decades—the notion of food was truly present in this campaign. We saw candidates seize the question of food and make a political cuisine."
As an example, Aries points to hard-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon's promise to make school canteens "100-percent organic so that all children can eat well, and not just those with rich parents." He wasn't alone. Whether to appeal to French farmers or French families, almost every candidate included food production in their campaign programmes. Macron proclaimed agriculture "at the heart of French food sovereignty" and proposed a 5 billion Euro agricultural investment program. François Fillon, the presidential nominee for France's Republicans party, called agriculture "the power of France" and promised to "restore every chance to the French agricultural model." Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon proposed a ten-point "plan for quality food" including the banning of "hazardous pesticides."
At other times, candidates had food thrust upon them—literally. While visiting the Rungis market in Paris, Le Pen apparently narrowly avoided a flying tomato, and was recently egged in Brittany. Fillon was pelted with flour not once but twice, while Macron also had an egg thrown at his head as he walked through the Salon International de l'Agriculture. As American comedian John Oliver proclaimed in his segment on the election, "I don't know if the French are any closer to picking a president, but they're about halfway to making a decent crêpe."
Then of course, there was the scandal that erupted over Macron's celebratory dinner at Parisian brasserie La Rotonde after winning the first round, which drew comparisons to Nicholas Sarkozy's 2007 celebration at chic Champs Elysee eatery Fouquet's. Eager to portray Macron as a part of the global elite, in contrast to Le Pen as a working class populist, the Front National was capitalised on the moment. "Macron's speech was very arrogant," said party vice president Florence Philippot in an interview. "By surrounding himself with all that show-biz, it really shows his state of mind."
Yet of all the candidates, it was Le Pen herself who truly weaponised food. Pitting herself as a defender of French identity, Le Pen used agriculture as a symbol for French tradition in need of protection from the forces of globalisation, as promoted by Macron and others. "I consider food independence and food security as strategic issues," she said. "That's why we have stood with farmers for many years." Meanwhile, she accused the European Union of promoting "the disappearance of French agriculture" and "undermining French food security."
"In this country, you can't be in politics if you don't love food."
After years of struggling against cheaper imports from other EU countries, such declarations struck a chord among agriculturalists. A February poll found that 35 percent of French farmers were planning on voting for Le Pen, compared to 20 percent for Macron.
"There's no longer room for family agriculture in France," says Gislaine Bachraty, a 60-year-old Front National voter who lives in the town of Cavaillon in the country's south. "There are farmers who work like crazy but can't even live from the fruits of their labour."
For Le Pen, food also became a symbol of French culture, assaulted by the ills of multiculturalism. Also while touring the Rungis market, she said the country should "promote 'eating French,' especially in [school] canteens," and argued that the ritual slaughter of animals, as required by halal and kosher foods, "should be banned." Unsurprisingly, this also animated FN voters.
"Halal isn't normal, it should be against the law," says Gerard Badin, who also lives in Cavaillon and supports the extreme-right party. "We're funding Islam with halal. It could feed terrorism."
According Knobel, the historian, this discourse around food is part of a larger myth promoted by the FN. "The Front National constructs a fantasy," he says via email. "A fantasy that would make us believe that there is a process of population substitution on French metropolitan territory, in which European people would be replaced by non-Europeans, from Africa and the Maghreb. The logic is the same with halal meat."
For Karim Loumi, who runs Les Jumeaux, a halal butchery in the Paris neighborhood of Les Lilas, Le Pen's discourse "hides something very dangerous: hate and racism." Loumi sees his work is deeply rooted in French tradition.
"In France, butchery isn't a job—it's an art," he tells me. "We are very proud to be a French butchery."
Showing off plaques he has won from over 40 different meat competitions, Loumi explains that he is one of the only halal butchers to sell Bresse chicken.
"It's the best in the world," he says. "It's the chicken Napoleon ate. It's part of our heritage, transmitted generation to generation."
Food in France has long been inspired by foreign influences, and for Ribault, the Michelin-starred chef, it is people like Loumi that make French cuisine what it is today.
"We have been lucky to be enriched by all the people of France," he says. "It is a richness. France remains that way: multicultural, at the level of food, of bistros, of bars, of gastronomy. That's why we are recognised the world over."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES FR.