The High Court at Nanterre west of Paris has ordered a convenience store to cease trading for failing to respect its lease agreement to run a general “grocery store”. The court made its ruling on December 4th, 2012, after hearing that the store in Colombes, a town in the north-west suburbs of Paris, sold almost exclusively Eastern and halal products and did not stock either pork products or alcohol.
Both the landlord – the local authority housing agency – and the store manager have denied suggestions there is any religious motivation behind the legal action against the store which is in a rundown estate with a high Muslim population. However, the shop manager says he will appeal to the Court of Appeal at Versailles in what appears to be an unprecedented case in France.
The legal battle involves a 600m2 convenience store in the rundown district of Grèves in Colombes. Located on the ground floor of a recently-renovated block of flats, the building is owned by the local authority housing agency Colombes Habitat Public which leases its use as a store. In March 2015 the manager of the store, who ran it under the Franprix shop franchise, decided to sign the lease, which runs until 2019, over to a local businessman called Yalcin Suleyman. “My predecessor had wanted to leave for a while and could not find anyone to take over the business because it's not an easy district,” says Yalcin Suleyman, who runs a company called Anadolu Distribution.
Before the store even reopened Olivier Virol, director at Colombes Habitat Public, was alarmed by a notice announcing the opening of a halal butchers and went to meet the new manager. “I told him that if he set up a halal butchers I would immediately take action over the lease because it would not correspond to the specific provisions,” says Olivier Virol. “It went well, he reassured me.”
However, once the store was opened, this time under the name Good Price, Yalcin Suleyman quickly came under criticism from the mayor of Colombes Nicole Goueta, who is from the right-wing Les Républicains, for not selling certain products. “The mayor came to the opening with the director of the [housing] agency to tell me that there should be an alcohol section and products containing pork,” says Yalcin Suleyman. Olivier Virol himself says: “We had received complaints at the town hall on the part of local residents and at the agency from tenants who could no longer find what they wanted, it had interfered with habits.”
Virol points out that there are no other shops in the immediate area. The nearest supermarket is a Leclerc some 8oo metres away. “Without a car it's difficult for our ageing population,” he says. In the absence of an amicable agreement bailiffs were sent in to carry out assessment reports. These revealed an absence of alcoholic produce, the presence of numerous “Eastern” products and sections that were “almost exclusively” halal, as well as some “decorative charts showing Koranic verses”.
Among the complaints cited in the decision by the Nanterre court is the fact that “the restricted range of products does not meet the needs of all the area's inhabitants”. But another grievance reported in the judgement is the “sale of prayer charts written in Arabic”. Moreover, in August 2016 a spokesperson for Colombes town hall described the shop to AFP news agency as a grocery store for a particular community “which corresponds to a religious practice”. The spokesperson said that Colombes could not allow the area to be run just for the benefit of one community in this way. “Good Price is not respecting the conditions on diversity that we had laid down from the start,” the spokesperson added.
In its judgement the court in Nanterre, which found in favour of the housing agency, did not use any religious consideration to back its judgement. The judges in the civil court first of all underlined that, as the sale of non-foodstuff items remained “marginal”, the shop was indeed involved in the “grocery store activity provided for in the lease”. However, “putting to one side the denominational aspect … the positioning of trade towards the sale of products intended not for all customers but to some specific purchasers (halal products, Eastern products) is restrictive and doesn't conform with the broad notion of a grocery store”, they write.
In the bailiffs' reports the company Anadolu had shown that non-halal meat was being sold in its store. But the court decided that this was was not enough to outweigh other observations which “established that the majority of products sold were halal or exotic” and showed “the absence of wines and alcoholic drinks being sold”. The court therefore ordered for the lease to be terminated, for the company Anadolu Distribution to be evicted and for it to pay 4,000 euros in costs to the housing agency Colombes Habit Public.
Yalcin Suleyman intends to appeal, however. “My shop is a grocery shop, I work with a wholesaler who supplies the G20 and Cocci stores, it's absurd to say that 95% of what I sell is halal,” he says. But he, too, is anxious to avoid attributing any religious motivation to the case and says he does not see any evidence of Islamophobia in the housing agency's legal action. “It's just a bit of a stupid decision,” he says.
The shopkeeper insists that his choice of product are dictated solely by commercial factors. “I'm in business, I'm not religious,” says the 40-year-old. “When I took over Franprix [editor's note, the previous name and franchise of the store] I looked at the figures and I positioned the store towards products likely to sell quickly and without any risk. In a deprived area selling alcohol creates the risk of theft from displays, of burglaries, which is out of proportion to the turnover generated.” The same reasoning led him to prefer turkey 'ham' rather than using pork, for which “there isn't enough demand and there are always losses”. As for the prayer charts, they are simply “items of decoration in Arabic” which he does not read, he says.
In August 2016 a report in Le Parisien newspaper described the interior of the store in Colombes. “Like the soft background music, the atmosphere at the Good Price convenience store in Colombes, located in the workings class district of Grèves, is Eastern,” it stated. “There are some very neat and well-stocked shelves but no trace of either alcohol or pork. The meat is halal and at the charcuterie section the ham and the salami are turkey, and the saucisses are beef. As for the drinks section, it just has juices and fizzy drinks.”
Since his arrival Yalcin Suleyman, who spent 20 years working on the markets, says he has “tripled” the number of customers who use the store and says turnover is up. This, he says, supports his decisions. “A storekeeper must be free, it's not for the landlord to get involved. I don't say to them 'Don't house such and such a person at such and such an address'.”
A resident of many years in the nearby Petit-Colombes district, Thierry Lorent has a different take on the store. Thirteen years ago he launched a local festival – the Festival du Banc Public – in a bid to re-appropriate the streets which had been taken over by drug dealers. He does not see the housing agency's legal action as a sign of hostility towards the Muslim community but as part of a desire to keep “local businesses with a diversity of products”. He says: “Two bakers have gone, a café has closed; we're fighting for cultural diversity but also diversity when it comes to food.”
The Colombes case will now be heard by the Court of Appeal in what appears to be a first of its kind in France. In 2002 the future prime minister Manuel Valls, who was then mayor of Évry south of Paris, sought to get a Franprix store closed in the Pyramides district of town after it had been taken over by two brothers who had banned pork and alcohol. Valls had issued a decree closing the store for food safety reasons, an order that was later suspended by the administrative court at Versailles. Ultimately Manuel Valls got his way but not via the courts, according to one of his key local supporters, Mbaye Badiane, speaking in an interview with Inrocks magazine in 2014. “In the end these shopkeepers moved out, they were given a hard time but in a discreet fashion,” said Mbaye Badiane. “There might be power cuts … it's quickly done, you know.”
Both France's national federation of local housing agencies OPH and Colombes Habitat Public told Mediapart that they are not aware of any precedents to the Colombes case. Meanwhile when contacted by Mediapart the anti-Islamophobia organisation the Collectif Contre l'Islamophobie en France (CCIF) was cautious about the way it viewed the case, which has not been referred to it. Its director Lila Charef pointed out that the far right had “re-appropriated” pork and alcohol and staged 'sausage and plonk' evenings as symbolic events. “Whether the town hall has arrived at this viewpoint we question, for after all it's free enterprise which is the issue here,” says Lila Charef. “If we end up closing shops because of what they sell – there was a lot of talk about halal products – what about their customers, where are they going to go?”
Her fear is that “people hostile to Islam might seize on this court ruling to provoke other cases of the same type”. She adds: “The appeal judges should take account of this context when making their decision.”
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Michael Streeter