French butchers say they're under threat from militant vegans. And they've asked the French government for protection. What's at stake, say butchers, is not just the right to eat meat — but a way of life.
Didier and Sandrine Tass run their butcher shop on a busy street in Paris' 15th arrondissement. They've been here for 19 years. They know all their customers and discuss growing children and family vacations as they serve them. The Tasses say it's a great livelihood. But these days, the butcher and his wife are nervous about threats from militant vegans.
"If they don't want to eat meat that's their right," says Didier Tass. "But imposing their beliefs on others is like a dictatorship. Imagine you work 20 years building your business and then somebody comes along and damages your shop?"
Sandrine Tass agrees. "Why would anyone attack hardworking people who are just doing their job?" she asks.
In recent months, there have been reports of hardline vegans throwing fake blood on butcher shops and scrawling abusive graffiti. They've broken windows.
Jean Francois Guihard, president of the French Confederation of Butchery, Butchers and Delicatessen, appealed to the Interior Minister to do something about the incidents in a letter last month. Guihard says the country's 18,000 small butchers are the backbone of the French economy. And they are so much more.
"In France your butcher is someone you go to like your doctor. It's personal," he says. "And the heart of any French village or town is the baker, the butcher and the café. If we don't have these small businesses, the social fabric will be gone. Amazon is nice, but it isn't everything."
Guihard says the attacks are worrying. He points to a recent case where a militant vegan was given a seven-month suspended sentence for praising the killing of a butcher. It was after a lone gunman took hostages in a grocery store in the southern French town of Trebes in March. In the incident, the armed extremist killed a police officer and the store's butcher. The vegan wrote online that it didn't matter if the butcher was killed because he was a murderer, too.
Government officials have agreed to meet with the butchers in various regions to discuss the violence.
Brigitte Gothiere is with L214, a major vegan association in France that defends animal rights. Gothiere says her group would never perpetrate violence because that's exactly what it's campaigning against.
"We don't attack butchers, we carry out investigations by putting hidden cameras in slaughterhouses and documenting things like baby chicks being ground up and other cruelties," says Gothiere. "We try to show the reality of how animals live and die while being raised, transported and slaughtered."
Gothiere says animals are sentient beings and people today know they don't have to eat animals to be in good health. She says while it might be tough to convince the French to give up meat, many people are concerned with animal welfare. Her organization has successfully convinced some egg companies to stop caging their birds. And last month, thanks to one of L214's clandestine videos, a slaughterhouse was sanctioned by a court and one employee was fired.
Some people have suggested that butchers are overstating the threat based on a few incidents.
Back in their butcher shop in the 15th arrondissement, the Tasses serve a string of customers asking for all kinds of cuts of beef, sausages, chicken, and veal. Tass wheels out half a cow carcass that's hanging on a hook from his freezer. He slices different cuts of steak from it everyday. The cow is a Blonde Aquitaine, a breed from southwestern France. It has papers that show when and where it was born, raised and slaughtered, and that list its vaccines. He says this is the traceability that French meat eaters insist on.
Artisan butcher shops like this are an integral part of the French culinary landscape. There are at least four family-owned butcher shops in the streets surrounding my own apartment in Paris. Every Sunday morning people line up to get meat for their Sunday meal before the butcher shops close at noon.
"People are proud of our system," says Tass. "We'll never be millionaires but this is about French savoir-faire. Butcher was one of the first professions. It's a noble job." Tass says he works hard, about 70 hours a week.
Customer Frederique Maglione calls vegans who attack butchers terrorists. But she says she does support organizations trying to call attention to animal suffering.
"That's why I buy my meat only from the butcher and never at the supermarket," says Maglione. "The mass industrial production is the problem. Butchers have totally different products and producers — a whole different system," she says.
Maglione thinks most French people are ready to pay more for their meat and eat less of it, if that means better treatment of animals.