PARIS (Reuters) - It’s sunset in the French capital, and hundreds of hungry people are poised to begin their meals at the sounding of a Muslim call to prayer.
Elsewhere in the world, the call rings forth from the minarets of mosques, but inside a tent in a gritty part of north Paris, it comes from a tinny radio speaker.
For the holy month of Ramadan, a soup kitchen has opened outside Cite Edmond Michelet, a tough public housing project in Paris’ notorious 19th arrondissement. On the menu is a traditional dinner, starting with yoghurt and dates.
“A lot of people can’t make ends meet nowadays, but they’d never tell you,” said Ali Hasni, 45, a volunteer for the non-profit group “Une Chorba Pour Tous” (Soup for Everyone).
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority and debate about the integration of these 5 million people into an avowedly secular society is a recurring theme in a political arena where only a handful of Muslims hold government posts.
The tower blocks surrounding the tent are a common sight in the French urban landscape.
Often run down, the forbidding high-rises are home to many Muslim immigrants who came here to work in the construction boom of the 1960s and 70s, as well as immigrants from other faiths.
Many tower blocks were on the frontline in 2005 when mainly immigrant youths rioted across France after two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted in a power sub-station after a run-in with police. Violence has flared sporadically in many such neighborhoods since then.
The 19th arrondissement tops Paris’ violent crime statistics, and unemployment is rife. But the soup kitchen’s organizers are unfazed by its reputation.
“We adapt to wherever the mayor lets us set up shop, tough neighborhood or not. But we’d really like a more permanent address since demand rises every year,” said Farid Adjadj, a 34-year-old postal worker who’s been a volunteer since 1994.
While fights between groups of Arab Muslims and young Orthodox Jews make the local papers in the 19th every few months, some residents say tensions are under control.
“This is one of the most populous parts of Paris, and we get along very well — I just wish that were the same in the Middle East,” said David Siksik, a Jewish volunteer.
The tent, known as “the big top”, stretches across several basketball courts. Most of those shuffling in are men on their own. Many speak in Arabic as they settle in at long tables set with plastic tableware.
The main dish is a spicy stew that is eaten — in dozens of variations — across North Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe, Turkey and India. Here it’s called “chorba” — a French transliteration of the Arabic word for soup.
Une Chorba Pour Tous, which mostly targets poor Muslims, has been operating since 1992. Its 150,000 euro ($212,000) annual budget from private donations and public grants allows it to provide some 700 meals a day year-round.
But it is busiest at Ramadan when it serves an average of 2,000 meals per night. Charity is a religious duty in Islam.
“Charity is all the more important during Ramadan, and most of our volunteers are Muslim. But we don’t exclude anyone who needs help or wants to help,” said Fanny Ait-Kaci, 56, one of the group’s founding members.
Food prices in France rose by 6.4 percent annually in July — although overall consumer inflation eased 0.3 percent from the previous month — and charities say many, especially the poorest, have been struggling to make ends meet.
Soup kitchen volunteers say most people who come to the tent are not homeless, but poor immigrant workers or solitary unemployed who, above all, miss living in a community.
“Many people come but wouldn’t want their families to know they’re here, especially since they might think they’re living the high life in a rich country,” Hasni said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has angered many immigrant groups by cracking down on illegal immigration, but he has also championed labor reform as a way to fight poverty.
Unemployment has fallen almost a full point since he took office last year, but has since leveled off at 7.6 percent.
France does not keep official statistics on religion or ethnic background, so it’s hard to see who is most affected by joblessness.
In the meantime, the soup tent fills.
“I live in a hotel and can’t cook, so I came here — if it weren’t for this association I wouldn’t be able to break the fast properly,” said Karim, 32, an unemployed waiter who declined to give his last name.
“There’s no real Ramadan spirit in my neighborhood in (more upscale) western Paris, but here, there’s all we need,” said Salima Hajjaj, a hairdresser who had come with her unemployed husband and three children.
Additional reporting by Dillah Teibi; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile