Where Have All the (White) Butchers Gone?

Every year, it seems, French politicians and the country’s press discover a new way to express their discomfort with the country’s growing Muslim minority. This year, they have been preoccupied with the prevalence of halal meat and Muslim butchers in urban areas. A nostalgic article from Le Monde remembers to the good old days of vieille France butchers.

He retired at the age of 58, on the opening day of hunting season. The weather was fine. One of his last customers surprised him by uncorking a bottle of champagne in the shop. Another fell into his arms, weeping. This was all some months ago; he had worked 44 years as a butcher. Yves Beguin wants to think that all of the sadness was about his customers’ attachment to his good cuts of meat. “When I left, people started freezing paupiettes,” he says.

In Pantin (in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis), Beguin was the last of his line. That is, the last of those he calls, with his voluble manners and his Somme accent, “the traditional butchers,” meaning butchers who are not “halal”. Since his retirement, this 52,000-resident district in the Parisian petite couronne has been left with nothing but halal butchers. Beguin knows that it saddened more than a few, not least the Socialist mayor Bertrand Kern who, he says, “obliged me to stick around for another year.”

When Beguin heard National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s controversial attack on ritual slaughter, he was in his small Picardie manor, his reward for those long years of labor, and where he now spends half of his weeks. “That all the meat in Ile-de-France is halal today is absolutely false” he says. But that “traditional” butchers are disappearing while the halal ones are spreading … he shrugs.

The fact is that in Pantin, where more than 20% of the population is foreign-born, many of the old butchers have laid down their cutlery in recent years, giving way to Muslim buyers. As in other districts with growing immigrant communities, retirements and a loss of interest in the business has driven the shift.

Gray at the temples, with a body gone round in the lazy Rungis mornings, Beguin is relaxed when he talks about the transition today. But it took him a bit of time to get there. Because he, too, sold his business to “a halal”-a 33 year-old man from the Maghreb, now naturalized but an undocumented immigrant in the beginning of the last decade.

The transition was the unspoken obsession that dominated the farewell party Beguin threw in November 2011, at the Pantin school where he invited more than 200 people. At the buffet were the mayor, his wife, the dry-cleaning lady, all of Beguin’s regular clients. “What can you do?” asked the centenarian Mrs. Brassac, herself retired in 1970. “The craft of butchering has disappeared.”

The sadness Beguin feels about how the butcher business has evolved comes through in the stories he recalls about his beginnings. His career started when he was “fourteen years and one month old” in the Pas-de-Calais countryside because, he says, “the smell of blood did not bother me.” A place where the “rare Maghrebians” , tolerated at best, as those who “sold rugs in the markets”. At worst, they were hated by veterans of the Algeria war.

A younger clientele.

Over the years at Pantin, first as a resident in the 1980s and since 2000, as a local butcher, Beguin watched as his city evolved. “Six shops turned into taxiphones [North-African public payphone shops] or halal butcher shops”, said his wife, a fragile blonde, sitting next to him. But Beguin was betting on the “bourgeois bohemians” who were also choosing to settle in the neighborhood. To them, he only sold organic products and Raised in France meat.

But it was only when Beguin started looking someone to buy out his shop that he was really confronted with the sociological evolution of his environment. “For the sake of the neighborhood,” he says, he really wanted to find a “traditional” style butcher. To find such an heir, he went as far as hiring the services of a special agency. But after five months of searching, he understood he could do nothing about it. In the end, he gave up and put an ad on leboncoin.fr.

A choosy couple, the Beguins started receiving the candidates one by one in their shop, close to the church. There were ten of themin all. All of them “Maghrebians”. “Even though we knew the new buyer was going to have a halal shop, we wanted him to have a certain bearing” explained Beguin. They eventually found Lahcen Hakki and sold the shop to him cheaply: 65,000 Euros for the shop, much less than it was worth according to the sales figures – “what it would have been worth a decade ago,” according to Beguin.

Confronting this enormous shakeup in his life, Beguin ended up finding his way to a smooth handoff of his knowledge. Upon returning from his trips to the new countryside retreat, once or twice every couple of weeks, he could not help stopping by to say hello his successor. He would often offer some advice, as a way of making his visit useful: “I gave him my merguez recipe (…) and a trick to keep the veal chops tender”, he says.

Behind the storefront, now dressed up with a red banner that rings out “Halal Butcher Shop” in white letters, with his wide chest, his little brown goatee, his laughing eyes, Hakki swears that he welcomes with “pleasure” the inspecting visits of Beguin. “I have always learned on the job with the French people!” he says reassuringly. Before the butcher business, in Morocco, he was a tailor for women, a mason, and a plasterer.

Beguin would have liked to convince him to keep a little shelf of bottles of wine, like the one he had created for his “bobo” clients. But Hakki refused: ‘As Muslims, we are not allowed to drink alcohol, you know’ – “I told him: but what about the Arab corner store, doesn’t he sell alcohol?”, recalls the retired butcher. Hakki did eventually agree to sell some organic products. “But they do not really sell very well,” he whispers.

To Beguin’s old-school shop, Hakki has added his personal touches. He placed a tajine plate and dates from Algeria on the counter. On the shelves, he displays couscous and oriental spices. Meat now is imported from the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Germany. Cheaper products which attract “a younger clientele, who cares more about how much money they spend,” he says.

The “halal” notice on the storefront has however scared away the older clients: “Yes of course I have noticed that the old grandmothers have trouble coming in now”, Hakki acknowledges. Some clients have been disappointed not to find pork in the shop anymore. Now those who really want their home-made rillettes have to get on the metro and go three stations in, toward Paris, to find them. “Most people have just replaced pork with other meats, though,” Hakki says. On this gently sloping street, fringed with grey buildings, where the butcher shop lives its life, the name of the bistro next door is The Future.

By Elise Vincent