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France: Cola Drink Hopes To Cash In On Anti-Americanism

By Sarah Martin

A France-based entrepreneur is hoping to cash in on what he sees as growing anti-American sentiment, especially with respect to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Taking a cue from a popular drink in Iran, "Zam Zam Cola," businessman Tawfiq Mathlouthi has launched "Mecca Cola" in France as a "politically correct" alternative to the very visible American brands Pepsi-Cola and Coca Cola.

Paris, 5 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The red-and-white label on the bottle of "Mecca Cola" looks familiar, but the stripe is perpendicular instead of horizontal. And the swirls on the letters? Just a coincidence, says Tawfiq Mathlouthi, the Tunisian-French entrepreneur who established Mecca Cola last month in Paris.

The outward resemblance to Coca Cola is striking, but there's at least one big difference. Mathlouthi says 10 cents of every euro spent on Mecca Cola will go to support Palestinian charities, so that -- at least in France -- cola drinking has become a political act. Mecca's logo says it all: "Drink engaged, not like an idiot!"

Mathlouthi admits he was inspired to create Mecca Cola after seeing the economic success of another politicized cola drink, "Zam Zam Cola," in Iran and the Middle East. Zam Zam is a hit, with some 10 million bottles reportedly exported to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states this autumn.

But for Mathlouthi, Mecca Cola is more than just a good business opportunity. He said it's a way of making a statement against what he calls "American imperialism" in the Middle East. "We are against American policy. We made it clear from the beginning. And we don't care what they will think, I mean the American administration, we are against them. We don't agree with the foreign policy of the United States. We don't agree with the American imperialism. We say it very, very clearly and in an active way, and anyone who buys a Mecca Cola bottle is making an act of protest against the American politics and also against the crimes of Zionism."

Mathlouthi acted fast. He had the idea for Mecca Cola this summer, started the paperwork in August, and had his first crate of cola wrapped and ready in the factory by October. That's because he wanted to be able to launch his new product to coincide with the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, which started in November.

It's not clear yet how the general public will react to the new cola, but it's already starting to make inroads among France's some 5 million Muslims -- the target market for the drink.

Amri Abdullahziz is the owner of food and bakery-supply shop in Paris's 18th district. He ordered his first crate of Mecca Cola at the beginning of November after hearing about it from ads on local radio. He's still keeping a larger supply of Coca Cola in his shop, but he likes the premise of Mecca Cola. "Launching a product to compete with Coca Cola cannot be truly serious, but to take a small part of the market, why not? The only thing I can say is that perhaps they have made the price a little too high for a new product in its launch phase."

A bottle of Mecca Cola costs 1.50 euros, whereas, in most stores in Paris, you can find Coca Cola for 1.20 euros.

As the sun drops over the Parisian skyline, Abdullahziz brings out bowls of soup and open cardboard boxes full of dried dates. He is soon joined by his friend Ayed Ouanes, who is drinking a glass of Mecca Cola with his food. "Yes, there are a lot of people, me I'm one of the first, who have effectively decided to boycott Coke because notably it's a symbolic product, not just because it's American. I have nothing against Americans. I like Americans and there are sensational Americans. But Coke, it symbolizes something. How can I put it? All the things that are most diabolical in history. I use that word because Coca Cola, it really symbolizes American imperialism. You don't have to be a revolutionary or an extremist to know that," Ouanes said.

A spokesperson for Coca Cola Enterprises in Paris says that Coca Cola is not worried about Mecca Cola. The spokesperson said Mecca Cola has been clear from the beginning that they are opposed to American policy not Coca Cola itself.

Mecca Cola is distributed in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Germany. Mathlouthi said he's had requests from as far away as Vietnam and Australia, Bangladesh and Canada. He said when he started at the beginning of November, the goal was to sell at least 500,000 bottles during the month of Ramadan. By the middle of November, Mathlouthi had sold 700,000 bottles and had taken orders for more than 2 million bottles.

He said he's not letting success go to his head. Mathlouthi said he has been politically active from the age of 10, when he used to sell products door-to-door to raise money to support Palestinians. "I'm a citizen, and a citizen is somebody who is engaged, involved in all civil and political life in his city. A real citizen must act. A good citizen doesn't wait for decisions. He must act and he must participate in decisions."

France is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. If at least some of them make the switch to Mecca Cola, Mathlouthi could find himself at the head of a lucrative business.