PARIS -- The French butcher who cuts and tresses meat with care, and serves as city dwellers' link to the land, is falling on hard times, unable to find new blood to keep his iconic image alive -- as supermarkets and Arab butchers selling halal meat at cheaper prices thrive.

The changes in this age-old industry reflect economic and societal shifts gnawing at France's core, and have catapulted the butcher shop into the debate before presidential elections in April and May.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has lamented the decline of the traditional French butcher and now wants all meat clearly marked -- halal, kosher or French -- while Prime Minister Francois Fillon has suggested the ritual slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews is out of sync with modern times.

The conservative leaders awoke to the topic after extreme-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen contended that Muslims have a stranglehold on butcher shops -- and on the French way of life. With polls suggesting Sarkozy will lose to Socialist rival Francois Hollande, the president is racing after third-place Le Pen's voters to bolster his chances at a second term.

Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire released data making clear that Le Pen was wrong when she said last month that all meat sold in the Paris region is halal. However, halal butcher shops run by Muslims have long been on the rise in the country with Western Europe's largest Muslim population -- while traditional butcher shops are in decline.

Sarkozy, after his remarks caused concern, ultimately asked that butcher products be labeled halal or kosher on a voluntary instead of mandatory basis. He didn't say there was anything wrong with halal meat, just that it should be clearly labeled.

For butcher Ait-Ben Ali, there is an easier solution: "They shouldn't be mixing politics and meat. They should find the real problems."

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