No Champagne – or state dinner – for Iranian president’s visit to France

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX1SX2O

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX1SX2O

 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-IRAN-WINE, originally transmitted on Nov. 13, 2015.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri. *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-IRAN-WINE, originally transmitted on Nov. 13, 2015.

PARIS (RNS) Usually when foreign leaders visit France, sumptuous tables are set for them with the best food and drink the country can offer. The French hosts are proud to flaunt their famous cuisine, and the glittering official dinner is the highpoint of the stay.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will see none of this next week on his first official visit to Paris, because of a reported diplomatic spat over foods that are forbidden in Islam.

Rouhani’s trip marks Iran’s return to the international community after it agreed with world powers in July to curb its nuclear program. Billions of dollars of potential trade deals are at stake, as well as Tehran’s possible cooperation fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But Tehran made the faux pas (in the French view) of insisting that President François Hollande’s chefs follow Muslim dietary rules and serve only halal meat and no alcohol. There must be no Champagne or wine at the planned lunch on Tuesday, even for the non-Muslim hosts, they told French diplomats organizing the event.

The French offered a face-saving breakfast instead, but their Iranian counterparts dismissed this as “too cheap”, according to RTL radio, which broke the story. When no compromise was found, the French simply called off the proposed lunch at the president’s Élysée Palace.

So Rouhani, who is also due to address the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) during his two-day stay, will have talks with Hollande but no meal. The Élysée Palace was tight-lipped when asked about the report, dismissing it as “derisory” when far more important issues were on the agenda.

Diplomats instead stress the bilateral talks will last two hours, a comparatively long session that signals France’s interest in patching up relations with Iran. Paris took the toughest line of the western countries in the negotiations over the Iran’s nuclear program, and does not want to be left out of big trade deals, now that western economic sanctions are about to be lifted.

It might seem strange to clash over such details, especially when bigger issues are actually at stake. But there are domestic political costs for both leaders if wine is or is not on the menu. If he accepted it, Rouhani would give more fuel to Iranian conservatives who accuse him of being too accommodating to western powers.

France’s rising far-right National Front, which looks set to score some important victories in regional elections next month, would brand any concession by Hollande as another sign of the “Islamization” they say the country is going through.

Halal meat has become a political issue in the regional polls campaign. Conservatives want state schools that offer it to Muslim pupils – as well as kosher meals to Jewish pupils – to take both off their cafeteria menus. Even vegetarian meals, the default alternative, should be scrapped in favor of meat dishes, including pork.

The public school system must respect France’s strict separation of church and state, known as laïcité, and serve the same meal to all without regard for any religious laws, they insist.

When he retired in 2013 as Élysée Palace head chef after cooking for six presidents, Bernard Vaussion revealed that he had occasionally served halal and kosher meat when requested by Muslim and Jewish guests dining at the center of the secular republic.

He had even strictly separated meat and dairy items in his kitchen and had it inspected and approved by a rabbi before a meal for visiting Israelis, he said.

But wine is different. It is a centerpiece of French cuisine and tradition, as well as an important export product. Banning it would amount to telling the French not to be French.

A few years ago, neither the emir of Qatar nor the Saudi king, both Sunni Muslims, objected to wine being poured from opaque carafes to other guests at Élysée dinners in their honor. They could take mineral water, fruit juice or any other soft drink of their choice.

State dinner held in Paris on Nov. 10 by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for visiting Moroccan Prince Moulay Rachid. PHOTO: Frédéric de La Mure, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development.

State dinner held in Paris on Nov. 10 by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for visiting Moroccan Prince Moulay Rachid. PHOTO: Frédéric de La Mure, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development.

But some Shi’ite guests have tried to impose their conditions. In 1999, the issue came out in the open before a planned dinner for Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. After a testy exchange, both the dinner and a meeting with President Jacques Chirac were called off.

Ten years later, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called off a dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy but had a productive meeting with him.

An Iranian trade delegation threatened to walk out of a dinner at the Finance Ministry in 2004 when they saw bottles of wine on the table, but gave in when protocol experts from both sides agreed that the customs of the host nation took precedence.

Rouhani will start his tour in Italy on Saturday (Nov. 14). Rome has removed wine from official meals in the past, and it’s not on the menu for the dinner Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will host that evening.

He will also meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, which does not have these diplomatic dilemmas because it does not lay on lavish banquets for its guests.

France and Iran had extensive trade links, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, until United Nations sanctions were imposed in 2006 because Tehran refused to halt its uranium enrichment program. Its revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei spent the last few months of his 15-year exile near Paris before returning in triumph to Tehran in 1979.

When Rouhani and Hollande meet, there will be smiles all around and talk of deals in oil, cars and Airbus aircraft. But they won’t clink glasses of Champagne to celebrate the return to better relations.

(Tom Heneghan writes about religion from Paris.)

 

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  • Louis

    Let’s reverse the scenario here: if President Francois Hollande goes on a State visite to Iran, there will clearly be no alcohol served. That is okay. It is part of the beliefs and practices.
    So, if Iran’s president goes on a State visit to France, he should expect wine to be served. He does not have to drink it, obviously and he won’t.
    When in Rome, do as the Romans do…or just stay home.

  • Larry

    But where is the fun in that?

    The whole point of being a religious fundamentalist is to justify trying to force people to abide by the dictates of your religion.

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  • Bernardo

    One wonders if all of his wives will be with him? The absurdity of Islam as noted many times has no bounds.

    An example that got my attention many years ago:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/1503931/Prayer-Recitation-of-Quran-and-Ablution-or-Bath?query2=islam%20fart

    “Farting is problematic in Islam. During prayer, a worshipper must not fart. Sahih Bukhari (1.4.137) writes that Allah will not accept a Muslim’s prayer if he/she passes wind during the ritual.

    The exception occurs if the worshipper farts silently, or the fart does not smell. In such a case, he/she may continue with the prayer (ibid, 1.4.139).Sunaan Nasai (1.162) writes that if you fart during a prayer you must redo ablution. Sahih Bukhari (9.86.86) says that for a “farter” Allah will not accept his/her prayer until he/she performs another ablution.”

  • MKhattib

    All of which underscores an important point for the regime: everything will always be on Iran’s terms.In a reminder of just how much the Iran regime expects the rest of the world to dance to its tune, Rouhani said in an interview with the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, that the U.S. and Iran could normalize relations but that the U.S. should “apologize” first without going into further detail as to what kind of apology the regime was demanding.

    It’s an odd demand to make considering that the regime currently holds several Americans hostage and in a report just released this week, was identified as the source of manufacturing bombs that killed hundreds of U.S. service personnel in Iraq through its Quds Forces.

    But nothing this outrageous would be unexpected from a regime that has been growing more aggressive towards the world since the nuclear deal was completed.

  • Mohamma A Rahman

    I see many email and comments here,i will not object to any but this what i would say to all, you must stay away from alcohol , not to drink not to serve or not to take part where it is served, this is one of the main principal of a true Muslim person
    But i have seen many Muslims who compromise this terms as suits their own interest and try to explain this with modern logics and theory.
    you can say what you like and whatever explanation or reasonable reason you provide, but the truth is Alcohol is totally forbidden. i salute, I honour, I respect, i admire the stance of Iran and Mr Rouhani on this issue
    They are not cheap or weak like other Muslim country ( even Saudi Arabia Who is supposed to be Head of All Muslim Country in the World) who will bow down to please others to receive benefits.
    no matter who you are!, how educated and modern you become. you simply cannot change words in Holly Quran
    Thank you

  • Bernardo

    Now for some 21st century reality:

    Mohammed was a dictator of not only Arabic tribes but also of many disturbing words and ideas. The looting and plundering of the lands of non-believers are history. The history continues with the contemporary Sunni/Shiite bloodletting the statements and actions of ISIS and Al-qaeda and the leaders of Iran.

  • musings

    Regrettably, Mr. Rouhani will not be attending any meetings in Paris, Germany or the Vatican at this time, due to Parisian crisis.

    It’s always better to talk with people under whatever circumstances than to attack them. I would be happier if France had been willing to accommodate Rouhani’s dietary requests. Anyone here who attacks Mohammed as some kind of dietary dictator ought to step back and recall that there are regional dietary rules, followed by Orthodox Jews which are just like those of Islam. Yet nobody calls them dupes of Father Abraham or whoever. Insults to Islam are usually ignorant.

  • Jack

    There’s nothing ‘Holly’ about your wicked Qur’an, which is what inspired a group of savages last night to slaughter more than a hundred innocent people in the very city where the Iranian stooge was scheduled to appear.
    I’m sure every one of those terrorist devils proudly abstained from alcohol, just like you arrogantly do yourself, Mohamma.

  • JOSE M VEGA

    The fact that you are a better Muslim or Jew because you eat or do not eat certain food it just point out your backwardness.
    You are backward people…. will take centuries to become civilized.
    Just to follow a religion any religion step by step is backward.

  • Sean

    With the greatest respect, the issue of drinking alcohol is trivial to being a good Muslim. Ironically, the Koran means alcohol can influence people to do evil deeds and indeed it can in many cases. The fact that evil deeds are done by Muslims anyway is the REAL issue. Islam has a problem with how some use it to commit activities of organised criminality like last night’s evil deeds. This is what needs tackling and not trivial matters like alcohol being served or not. The Koran does not care if one drinks or not, it cares if drink causes evil and hurt. Clearly, something other than alcohol is getting Muslims to cause evil and hurt? And this is the main issue. Hassan Rouhani is a good president of Iran but he did not make the rule but has opposition and needs to play it cool. A true Muslim will condemn terrorism and violence against innocent people whether alcohol inspired or done sober. True Muslims will know there are many more serious issues than drinking wine and harming no…

  • Sean

    Mohamma:

    It is very naive to believe that Iran’s leadership does not drink alcohol. There are many who do and they have the power to do so. Furthermore, alcohol is not entirely banned in Iran: medical alcohol is available and Christians can drink and make it legally. Rich Muslims be default also have access and high up regime officials like Rafsanjani, Khamenei, the late Khomeini, Bani Sadr and Ahmadinejad all consumed alcohol at many stages sometimes for ‘medical reason’ and sometimes blatantly. Like their image of being poor and living humbly, this is kept quiet partly because the Shah did it openly and annoyed his poor people which forms the majority of Iran despite its oil. The Saudis are the same only they totally ban alcohol in their country but if the royals want it, they get it. The Koran warns of the DANGERS potentially alcohol create. It outlaws violence against innocents and warns alcohol can contribute to this. Ironically, ISIS think it OK to kill people sober than…

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