French Muslims turn to Mecca-Cola
A French Muslim businessman has launched a 'committed' rival to Coke, called Mecca-Cola, and pledges proceeds to the Palestinians and peace organisations. Laurence Frost reports.
He has publicly undertaken to send proceeds from the sales of the drink to to peace organisations and a fund for the benefit of Palestinian children.
Shopkeepers in Saint Denis, a Paris suburb with a large North African immigrant population, say the stuff is now flying off their shelves.
"Since I started selling Mecca-Cola, consumption of Coca-Cola has fallen 80 percent," said Tahar Montathel, owner of the Golden Croissant bakery on the suburb's Avenue de la Republique.
"People are attracted by the idea of supporting the Palestinians."
Coca-Cola itself has played down the threat posed by Mecca-Cola and a growing number of imitators such as Muslim Up, which made its first appearance in French shops early March.
A company spokesman told French newspaper Le Figaro that Coca-Cola Europe did not expect to see anything like the fall in sales recorded in some Arab countries last year, as consumers turned their backs on American products in protest against the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and threats against Iraq.
"The boycott caused a 10-percent sales decline in some Arab countries in 2002, but no comparable phenomenon has been seen in Europe," the spokesman said.
That could still change, however - especially in a country like France, where an estimated five million Muslims account for more than eight percent of the total population.
All around the pedestrianised shopping district of Saint Denis, Mecca-Cola is on display wherever the world's best-known corporate icon used to be: in cafe windows, refrigerators and supermarket aisles.
Jobseeker Malik Bellahsene, 37, said he had taken the decision to stop buying Coca-Cola without hesitation.
"When you see what's happening over there, in Palestine, and how much the people are suffering, it's impossible not to want to give something," he said.
"The product is very good too," said another Mecca drinker, who identified himself only as Youcef, 26. "It has a taste somewhere between Coke's and Pepsi's."
But Montathel the baker believes Mecca's palatability is only a secondary selling point.
"Even if the taste hadn't been particularly good, I'm sure it would have been a success anyway," he said. "People identify with the product and want to give something to the Palestinian cause."
Mecca's Tunisian-born creator Mathlouthi is only too happy to agree, crediting an "overwhelming rejection of American hegemony and Israel's Zionist spirit" for his product's success.
Mathlouthi recently told AFP that one fifth of Mecca's profit was given to charity, and half of that to unspecified Palestinian cultural, educational and children's organisations.
"People have had enough of political correctness," he said. "They want a clear political commitment."
However, some Mecca-Cola drinkers - including Youcef - remain sceptical about the final destination of its profits.
"Everyone's talking about the success of Mecca-Cola and the millions of bottles sold," he said. "But what guarantees are there that the money is being sent to Palestine?"
Fatima, a 22-year-old business student, also has her doubts. "You can only support the initiative in principle," she said. "But I'm waiting to see whether part of the profit is really handed over to charities."
She also voiced ambivalence about Mathlouthi's marketing strategy, which saw the streets of Saint Denis plastered with bright red advertisements at the height of Ramadan, the Muslim religious festival.
"Frankly, I wonder whether he hasn't exploited a cause that Muslims identify with, to generate massive publicity for a product that isn't actually all that different from the original."
None of these doubts, however, are likely to halt the prodigious rise of Mecca-Cola — already on sale in 28 countries around the world, with four million bottles sold and another 14 million in the pipeline, according to Mathlouthi.
He is hoping to steal a march on rival "committed" colas — Britain's Qibla-Cola, Iran's Zamzam-Cola and French new entrant Muslim Up — in the race for global market share. A production plant is under construction in Dubai, with distribution rights across the Middle East.
Just four months after Mecca's launch, Mathlouthi may be on his way to usurping Coca-Cola's place in the world's Muslim countries and communities — a coup that arch-rival Pepsi and other soft drink makers could only dream of.
But his ambitions already stretch beyond toppling the one emblematic US brand; other western delicacies are already earmarked for appropriation in the name of Islam. Halal Fried Chicken would soon be on the menu, Mathlouthi pledged, washed down with Mecca-Cola-Coffee.