Never mind the soaring rate of unemployment, the public debt and, er, the Eurozone crisis, to president/candidate Nicolas Sarkozy the "first subject of concern and discussion of the French (...) is this issue of halal meat".
This surreal statement, pronounced a week ago in the city of St-Quentin, shows how disconnected Sarkozy is from the real worries of the French, within 50 days of the first round of presidential elections.
Had the president spoken with any French person, maybe he would have realised that meat - for those who can still afford it - is far down on a much more serious list of concerns such as the job market, the economy, healthcare and education.
Instead, Sarkozy has launched into an ultra-nationalist campaign and fixates all his attention on grasping the far-right electorate. So far, this strategy has not proved to be successful as François Hollande, the Parti Socialiste leader, is still thought to become the next French president in May.
Regardless, members of the government have been adding fuel to the flames. Two weeks ago, Home Secretary Claude Guéant caused a stir when he referred to the right for foreigners to vote in local instances, saying: "We do not want foreign councillors imposing halal meat in school meals". Yesterday, the usually discreet Prime Minister Francois Fillon condemned halal and kosher traditions as part of 'another time'.
Funnily enough, no debate has yet been engaged on foie gras and the force-feeding of geese - another 'tradition' involving meat everybody except the French considers barbaric. Also funny how all my childhood I had to fish was on the menu in school every Friday, in respect for a Catholic tradition, and that it has never raised any objection in regard to the respect of secularism in France.
The best explanation comes from Guéant himself, in another of his 'slips', last month: "Contrary to the ideology of the relativistic left, to us, all civilizations are not equal to each other." Guéant, by saying this, ignores completely the inclusive and tolerant role the Republic is supposed to bear. I cannot help but thinking of George Orwell's sentence in Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
There's a feeling of déjà-vu as Sarkozy and his team finds nothing better than to hunt on the lands of the National Front (the far-right party), just like five years ago: immigration, national identity, multiculturalism and integration are themes that already belonged to his 2007 campaign.
What he forgot is that the context of this election is different. First, because the National Front has never been so present in a campaign, giving out a more human face because of its new young female leader Marine Le Pen. The far-right party is currently hovering at 15% of voting intentions, according to an LH2-Yahoo! poll from the 19th of February. In making the far right's campaign themes his, it is possible that Sarkozy will end up giving additional legitimacy to Le Pen's populist discourse.
But above all, the French expect answers on the issues they are truly concerned about. In 2007, Sarkozy said he would be 'the president of the buying power'. He leaves the country with 10% of unemployment and a debt of 82,3% of GDP. He has not kept his promises, and it's not by throwing up a smokescreen that the French will forget his record.