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PARIS (Reuters) - A French fast food chain's decision to serve only halal meat in eight restaurants with a strong Muslim clientele has sparked a wave of criticism from politicians decrying the step as unacceptable.
A far-right leader said the 350-branch Quick chain was imposing "an Islamic tax" on its customers. A Socialist mayor has threatened a law suit for discrimination against customers who do not want to eat according to Muslim dietary laws.
The uproar, like France's drive to ban Muslim face veils and its state-led debate on national identity, has come just ahead of regional elections next month even though Quick began what it calls a six-month marketing test in late November.
The 5.5 billion euro ($7.46 billion) halal market in France is growing strongly, according to a survey in December 2009, citing increasing demand among young Muslims for halal produce.
Marine Le Pen, vice president of the far-right National Front, launched the accusations on Sunday, saying clients "are forced because of halal meat to pay a tax to Islamic organizations" that certify the food was produced according to Muslim dietary laws.
Socialist Mayor Rene Vandierendonck in Roubaix, a town near Lille with many Muslim residents, threatened a law suit. Lionnel Luca, a conservative parliamentary deputy, called for a boycott to restore "freedom of choice" in the Roubaix Quick.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire told the daily Le Figaro: "When they remove all the pork from a restaurant open to the public, I think they fall into communalism, which is against the principles and the spirit of the French republic."
Escalating her attack, Le Pen said on Wednesday that President Nicolas Sarkozy supported a "forced Islamization of France" because an arm of the state-owned savings bank, the Caisse des Depots et Consignations, held 99.63 percent of Quick's capital.
At issue is meat slaughtered according to the dietary laws of Islam, which shuns pork. The U.S. fast food chain McDonald's, which has about 1,150 branches in France, does not serve halal meat. Another U.S. chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken, says it does.
Abbas Bendali, director of the Paris marketing firm Solis, said Quick's decision simply responded to growing competition from smaller halal restaurants. France's five million Muslims make up about eight percent of the overall population.
"Large companies have become aware of Muslim consumers and the market they represent," he told Europe 1 radio, adding that several leading food companies and supermarket chains had also added or expanded halal product lines recently.
According to a Solis study, French Muslims will spend about 4.5 billion euros on halal food -- mostly meat and cold cuts -- in shops and another billion euros on halal fast food this year.
"The halal sector ... is a real growth factor in this crisis year," it wrote. Younger Muslims born in a baby boom in a growing Muslim community in the 1980s and 1990s were driving the demand, Solis said.
Customers in Roubaix's Quick had mixed reactions.
"I'm happy, I can come here with my Muslim friends," a teenager named Farid told Reuters. A woman named Pamela said: "It's good to have halal hamburgers, I'm not against that, but I'd still like to eat bacon burgers too."
Additional reporting by Pierre Savary in Roubaix; Editing by Louise Ireland