“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”. Sensible advice from Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance under Louis XIV, and advice which has been all too often ignored since. But another well-known citizen of France has objected to the plucking of the goose at all, or at least as it is being plucked in Poland and Hungary.

French actress Brigitte Bardot has written an open letter to Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz protesting about the treatment of geese in Poland. Bardot, a strong animal rights activist who established the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals in 1986, wrote that certain practices which take place on Polish farms – including the collection of down feathers from live geese – are inhumane. Bardot’s letter argued that the country should “ban these heinous and unacceptable practices.” A similar letter was sent to Hungarian PM Viktor Orban after Bardot watched a television documentary. A statement on her Foundation’s website said that “French television broadcast terrible images, shot on Polish and Hungarian farms, showing live geese being plucked in dirty and revolting conditions. This barbaric operation, which causes severe injury and extreme suffering to birds, can be repeated up to four times a year!”

Ewa Kopacz is in good company. Previous recipients of Bardot’s broadsides include in 1999 Chinese President Jiang Zemin, to whom she accused the Chinese of “torturing bears and killing the world’s last tigers and rhinos to make aphrodisiacs; in 2010 Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II of Denmark, to whom she appealed to halt the killing of dolphins in the Faroe Islands; and in 2011 French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand to whom she protested at bullfighting being officially included in France’s cultural heritage.

In 2008, Bardot was convicted of inciting racial/religious hatred in relation to a letter she wrote, a copy of which she sent to Nicolas Sarkozy who was then Interior Minister of France. The letter stated her objections to Muslims in France ritually slaughtering sheep by slitting their throats without anesthetizing them first. She also added, in reference to Muslims, that she was “fed up with being under the thumb of this population which is destroying us, destroying our country and imposing its habits”.

Which makes one wonder how she might have reacted to Poland’s Constitutional Court last week overturning an earlier ban on the ritual slaughter of animals, saying it was not in line with the constitution. The slaughter of animals without prior stunning was made illegal from 1 January 2013, but Judge Maria Gintowt Jankowicz said in her final verdict: “The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion which includes the carrying out of all activities, practices, rites and rituals which have a religious character. The same constitutional protection also extends to religious activities which differ from conventional behavior which prevails in the country – including activities that are perhaps unpopular among the majority of society.”

The ruling was made in relation to a complaint lodged by Poland’s Union of Jewish Religious Communities (ZGWZ) in August 2013 which had claimed that the ban not only violated the country’s constitution but also the European Convention on Human Rights, as it led to “discrimination in social and economic life of Jews in Poland.” Animal rights activists had lobbied for the matter to be taken to Poland’s Constitutional Court which duly ruled that the practice was illegal (please see Silence of the Lambs). Now, following this new ruling, anyone practising the slaughter of animals without first stunning them will be free from sanction, provided that the killings are carried out for religious purposes, as befitting the needs of the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

This raises interesting questions, as I wrote before, about where the boundaries of tolerance should lie and, in particular, whether practices which a majority opposes should be tolerated simply because a minority claim a religious need. It seems that where a constitution, as it ideally should, seeks to prevent cruelty to adults, children and animals – and revelations about CIA torture activities in Poland are relevant here as well – then that constitutional protection should overrule any other considerations.

It is an issue which needs to be resolved as tensions in Europe grow. Needless to say, those who are quickest to demand tolerance from others are, more often than not, the most intolerant when the boot is on the other foot. Or, to put it another way, they simply do not wish to accept that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, too.

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