(CNN)The struggle between vegans and the meat industry in France takes a new turn Tuesday as butchers meet with government officials to appeal for strengthened protection from the "terrorism" of vegan militants.
Butchers seek government help to combat militant vegans
The CFBCT French butchers confederation said that attacks on butchers and fishmongers have intensified in 2018. In the dead of night, the organization said, militants smash windows and spray anti-meat slogans onto storefronts, often splattering them with fake blood.
The tussle over the country's relationship with animals made headlines last week when Jean-François Guihard, the CFBCT's President, wrote to Interior Minister Gérard Collomb to ask for safeguards against such "attacks."
He said that two more butchers' shops -- in Lyon and Angier -- have been vandalized since he made the letter public.
"For me it's the vegan community that is responsible," Guihard told CNN. He believes certain associations, which he refused to name, support the guerrilla tactics. "They don't condemn [the violence]," he said, "which means they condone it."
He hopes Tuesday's meeting with the Interior Ministry will result in the "thugs being arrested."
The Interior Ministry told CNN that the discussions -- in which Collomb is not scheduled to take part -- could lead to surveillance systems being installed in "places where the threat is most serious."
Guihard -- a butcher himself -- denounced "authoritarian" vegans who "want to impose their lifestyle... on the immense majority of the population" in his letter, and called on Collomb to stop "intimidation" and "violence" against the 18,000 "honest professionals" he represents.
In Lille last year, seven meat-selling stores were squirted with fake blood, and a cluster of other incidents were reported around Paris and the Occitanie region. But the CFBCT has said that the episodes are becoming more frequent, and that in the past six months, more than 100 butchers, fishmongers and cheese shops have been targeted.
"[The attacks] don't come out of nowhere," said Jean-Pierre Poulain, a sociologist at the University of Toulouse who focuses on food. France's shrinking agricultural sector and the media spotlight on animal-rights issues have begun to "delegitimize animal death," he said, and movements abroad have set precedents for this type of violence.
The recent number of attacks surprises him, but the nature of them does not -- "certain groups in that milieu have violent attitudes," he said.
In March 2017, "Milk = Murder" and "Milk = Rape" were scrawled on a cheese shop in Lyon. One butchery in Lille in northern France, L'Esquermoise, has been vandalized twice in less than a year.
"My employees are scared ... that one day they'll be attacked," L'Esquermoise owner Marc Daubie told CNN. He discovered fake blood and graffiti covering his store in April 2017, and his windows were shattered 11 months later
He fears for the day when butchers will grow sick of the treatment and "turn violent." The confrontation is a "shame," he said, because butchers and vegans "have things in common" -- "we're also against animal mistreatment."
Sébastien Arsac, co-founder of L214 Éthique & Animaux -- one of France's most prominent animal-rights organizations -- told CNN the butchers' letter was an "overreaction." "The atmosphere is hardly insurrectionary," he added.
He empathizes with why butchers feel "symbolically threatened," though, with more and more people questioning why they eat meat.
Arsac said he also understands why activists -- frustrated with the slow pace of change -- turn to violence, but said he "firmly" opposes the strategy: "Non-violence is the basis of our movement, and the basis of the society we want."
The few, "excessive" militants are "very annoying," he said, because they harm the image of the cause and make individuals "suffer unnecessarily." Often butcher shops are passed down through families, he said. "I understand why it would be devastating."
But not all vegans are as sympathetic. While the French Vegan Federation has outright condemned the attacks, Tiphaine Lagarde -- co-president of the more "aggressive" 269 Life Libération Animale group -- said that the government has stopped paying attention to traditional political activism and that "confrontation" is the only way forward.
In March, vegan cheesemaker Myriam Jouglet was sentenced to seven months in prison for taking to Facebook to celebrate the death of a butcher killed during a supermarket shooting spree in Trèbes in southern France. She said she had "zero compassion" for Christian Medvès, one of the four people killed by Radouane Lakim, a self-proclaimed ISIS fighter.
While the animal-free diet has been slow to catch on in France, veganism is very gradually gaining ground. According to 2017 numbers from market intelligence agency Mintel, 6% of French people say they are vegan, the same as in Germany and Spain, up from 5% a year earlier.
Figures from the French agriculture ministry show that meat consumption declined in France between 2000 and 2012, and a recent study by the Xerfi think tank said that the sale of vegan food products increased by 82% from 2015 to 2016.
Yet vegans say the political influence of France's meat lobby has stopped them from making further progress.
Campaigners were disappointed when an agriculture and nutrition law passed in May without amendments that would have made closed-circuit television obligatory in all French abattoirs and outlawed the sale of eggs from caged hens. President Emmanuel Macron had promised both measures in his election campaign.
In the same month, lawmakers dropped a bill that would have made it obligatory for schools to feed children one vegetarian meal per week.
In April, France's National Assembly adopted an amendment that banned terms like "steak" and "bacon" from the packaging of meat-free products over concerns that they were "misleading" customers.
So far in France, no one has been physically harmed, said the CFBCT's Guihard. But things "could get out of hand," he told CNN. "If one of these thugs gets caught in the act, who knows what could happen?"