“Meat, an issue of ideological tensions”

The cross : Meat today seems to have a symbolic value, if not stronger than other foods, at least more divisive. Why ?

Jean-Pierre Poulain: Meat is a constituent part of the animal, which must therefore be killed in order to consume it. In ancient societies, this killing required ritualization. Animist societies, for which the animal had a soul, somehow negotiated this passage. The Roman priests had to officiate the slaughter and received pieces of the animal…

Everything changes with the religions of the Book: animal flesh is made to feed man, but not his blood. The question of death no longer arises but taboos appear: animals are forbidden for consumption and there are legal ways, and therefore other illegal ones, of killing. For Christians, these taboos disappear, with the exception of fat and lean. However, meat, like many symbols, has positive and negative connotations.

That’s to say ?

J.-PP: The positive is that the power, the strength of the animal is transmitted through the blood. Meat is also in French cultural history synonymous with pomp and celebration. In the allegorical representation of the “land of plenty”, roast pigs walk around with a knife stuck in their backs for the men to cut off a piece. Since the post-war period and until the 1970s, eating it every day has also been a marker of social progress.

And the negative?

J.-PP: It’s the guilt of being put to death, the blood you don’t want to see anymore. This has undoubtedly been accentuated with the urbanization of France. You can easily watch a movie on television in which a hero massacres dozens of villains, but you can no longer bear to imagine the death of an animal.

Because the animal has changed status?

J.-PP: In the classic Western view, man is at the top of the food chain and feeds off animals. Science has come to complicate this scheme. It was discovered that the animal is smarter and more sensitive than it seemed. The wild animal has been idealized while an anthropomorphization of the domestic animal has developed. Between the two, the place of farm animals, and therefore of meat, has become more complex, a stake in ideological tensions.

Can we speak of disaffection with meat?

J.-PP: Disaffection is perhaps a big word. True vegetarians represent perhaps only 3% of French people, vegans much less. On the other hand, a flexitarianism is developing, particularly among the middle and upper social classes.

Does meat consumption differ according to social class?

J.-PP: Yes, and it is perhaps linked to this idea of ​​social progress that I mentioned. It is the working classes that are the biggest consumers of meat. It should be remembered that the prices of poultry and pork have been falling steadily for years, 2022 being apart for cyclical reasons. This was also illustrated in politics during the last presidential campaign. When the Communist Party candidate advocated steak, his environmentalist allies were obviously not on the same line.


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