France's prime minister scrambled Wednesday to dispel concerns in the Jewish and Muslim communities after criticizing the ritual slaughter of animals for kosher and halal meat.

Halal meat in particular has emerged as a hot-button issue in the campaign for presidential elections starting next month in France, a country with at least 5 million Muslims, the largest such population in western Europe.

Francois Fillon's call for religions to "reflect" upon what he called outdated traditions has fed a hyper-charged political atmosphere. His boss, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, has openly courted far right voters in hopes of boosting his lagging chances of re-election, with digs at Muslim practices and calls to shrink immigration.

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