A man prepares a kebab in a fast-food restaurant in Marseille
A man prepares a kebab in a fast-food restaurant in Marseille Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

A food fight is breaking out in Marseille, where officials are casting the meat vendors as the enemies of a slicker, sleeker city center.

France is currently engaged in a national debate focusing on grilled meat garnished with salad and wrapped up in a flatbread. Kebabs returned to the political spotlight last month, when the city of Marseille announced a crackdown on snack bars in its city center—allowing officials to preempt commercial leases in an area where almost all these establishments are kebab shops. This comes on the heels of a more explicit anti-kebab ban in the city of Béziers in 2015. Meanwhile, several major Italian cities, including Florence and Venice, are trying to banish the hugely popular street food from the city core, too.

The food fight isn’t explicitly about employment, taxation, or foreign policy, but all three do come into play—as does the bigger question of national identity. The kebab, France’s third-most-popular takeaway food, has thus become a focal point for the debate about multiculturalism and how cities imagine themselves.

Kebabs first emerged in Western Europe in the 1930s, in Parisian restaurants set up by Greek and Armenian refugees from the former Ottoman Empire. The dish went huge in the 1980s, when many Turkish “guest workers” who were being laid off from industrial jobs in West Germany set up take-out kebab shops. That sparked a cross-continental trend continued in France by restaurateurs of mainly North African and Lebanese origin.

Despite this long history, the first real backlash against the cuisine came far more recently, after the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, the Paris-based food studies researcher Pierre Raffard told CityLab.  

“There’s a clear connection between economic stress and the birth of this debate over kebab shops,” says Raffard. “Usually, no one explicitly says, ‘we are banning kebab shops because we don’t want foreigners,’ but that this feeling lies underneath is nonetheless quite clear. The same cities that try to clear out kebabs never make the same policies about sushi or pizza or Chinese restaurants, for example, even though these are not specifically local. The target of the discourse are people coming from traditionally Muslim countries.”

This identification has sometimes spilled over into actual violence, such as in a 2015 explosion at a kebab shop near Lyon in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Many local papers framed it as a “revenge attack.” Another classic example of this cultural jingoism is a now-notorious stall at the 2013 annual convention of the extreme right Front National party, which proclaimed: “Ni kebab ni burger, vive le jambon-beurre” (“Neither kebab nor burger, long live the ham and butter sandwich”). A similar mindset spurred action in the city of Béziers. Tying his ban explicitly to concerns about immigration, the far-right mayor Robert Ménard blamed kebab shops for destroying the character of Béziers’ old town. The reality, notes Raffard, was rather different.

“It’s true that there were a lot of kebab shops in the city center and that this area was often otherwise deserted,” Raffard says. “But this urban catastrophe was not created by kebabs—they were a symptom of it.” Raffard cites a declining density that tracked stores moving into the suburbs. “A huge mall opened out of town in 2010, a policy that, in a pattern common across France, was promoted by the City Hall.”

The city’s leader thus demonized kebab shops as drivers of a blight actually created by poor planning, matching a familiar pattern where migrants seeking affordable rents for homes or businesses are routinely blamed for the conditions that made such areas cheap in the first place. This ugly prejudice has also warped perceptions not just of the people who run kebab shops, but also of what they sell.

A view across Marseille’s Old Port from the old city, where the municipality hopes to slash the number of kebab shops. (Jean-Paul Pellissier/Reuters)

A key criticism from opponents is that kebabs are poor quality, trashy food that somehow undercuts and damages local food traditions. This is hogwash. For a start, France’s and Europe’s kebabs vary hugely, from the cheapest most basic wraps that come in at around €4 to gourmet fare sold for twice that. Since most regions and countries have their own local variations, the product is also far from uniform. Certainly the meat isn’t always great at the cheap end, but then neither usually is the ham that goes into a classically French croque Monsieur (a toasted sandwich with ham and cheese, or sometimes a cheesy bechamel sauce). The kebab isn’t a monument to low quality—it’s a happy example of the market providing decent food cheaply.

In Italy, similar crackdowns were institutionalized Islamophobia under the guise of protecting local cuisines. In France, shooing kebabs from city centers is being framed as a way to clean up areas that have become run down. In Marseille, the boogeymen of regeneration and gentrification lurch into view. The city council is targeting kebab shops, as well as such low-end businesses as cheap electronics stores, in a bid to turn this city center into a shinier space that better reflects the administration’s aspirations.

The main drag linking the city’s main tourist area in the Old Port with a new regenerating waterfront (and shopping mall site) at La Joliette contains far too many small, low-rent businesses for the city’s liking. The administration has thus decided to sweep them away. It’s understandable that the city wants its main streets to look trim. The pity is that kebab shops are typically small, independent businesses, while the shops replacing them are usually the opposite.

“It’s supposed to be a new showcase for Marseille—and you simply can’t have kebab shops if you want to project the image the city wants,” Raffard says. “Now if you visit the main avenue through this quarter, you have the same globalized chains you find everywhere: Zara, H&M, Starbucks.”

To fit Middle Eastern food into this context, it would probably need to align with a new trend in France: franchised kebab chains with identical decor that Raffard describes as “de-ethnicized.” This is a global rather than France-specific phenomenon, of course, occurring currently even in Turkey. And it’s not a guaranteed success. Citizens of Le Mans failed to bite when a chain recently opened a suburban, drive-in kebab store, which shut down after failing to generate enough sales to stay afloat.

Some French cities may be flushing cheap kebab joints out of their hearts. But if all they replace them with are generic fast food joints with a mildly Middle Eastern twist, many people will sorely miss them when they’re gone—and those sleek city centers may all look the same.

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