They call themselves the best in the world. But France's butchers are only now stepping out of the shadows, with stars of the trade showing off their skills on television shows, in books or at celebrity cook-outs.

Suppliers to three-star restaurants, artists or the president's table, a handful of butchers have made it their mission to sex-up the image of their profession -- in the eyes of consumers and potential young recruits alike.

Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, whose butcher's shop is in the working class Paris suburb of Asnieres, took the challenge literally, posing naked last winter in a cheeky, meat-lover's calendar.

"The old cliche of the butcher with his meat-stained apron, red in the face and vaguely sinister, wasn't all that sexy," Le Bourdonnec told AFP at a gallery event to promote a photography book in which he is a key character.

"We have to show ourselves, not be ashamed of what we do. We were slow to wake up to the whole gastronomic movement -- but now we are out there with the rest," the 44-year-old said.

Riding the wave, the French butchers' confederation recently published an arty tome of high-brow essays in which writers and artists celebrated their love of meat in all its forms -- as a way to push back against the country's small but growing vegetarian movement.

And this month a glamorous foodie crowd turned out for a celebrity hot-pot at the Louchebem restaurant in Paris -- whose name means "butcher" in old slang.

"Butchery is a full part of French gastronomy," said Herve Sancho, a butcher from Bagneres-de-Bigorre in the Pyrenees, a former TV cookery programme judge and winner of France's prestigious best craftsman's award, the MOF.

"We put our heart into the meat," doubling up as culinary advisers, and acting as a bridge between farmers and city-dwellers, he said.

Two years ago, Hugo Desnoyer became the first butcher to be listed in the French Who's Who guide. Long queues snake out of his Paris shop, and restaurants flaunt his beef on their menus. But he dislikes the word "star".

"I'm just a middleman," says the 41-year-old, who is about to release his second cookery book. "The real stars are the farmers. In a single day we sell what it took them four years to create."

-- 'We have had to become surgeons' --


What all can agree upon, however, is that "French butchers are the best in the world."

"We have perfected the art of using the whole animal, knowing each part of the body inside out, and how it is used in the kitchen," said Desnoyer.

"For beef, the Anglo-American method -- which is the one adopted the world over -- it's very straightforward: cut the back of the animal into slices and make burgers with the rest," Le Bourdonnec summed up.

"The French separate out each muscle, we cut according to the fibre of the meat."

Le Bourdonnec has his own explanation for this wizardry: he sees it as a by-product of quirks in French cattle farming.

"Our animals are the most difficult to use, so to make the most of them we have had to become surgeons," says Le Bourdonnec.

French bovine races, he argues, are too dependent on expensive cereal feed as opposed to grass, they mature late, and only the females produce meat fatty enough for steaks, with males exported massively as veal.

The result, he says, is meat both less tender and more expensive to produce than breeds used in the Anglo-American world.

Le Bourdonnec is campaigning for the introduction of mixed breeds suited to today's trend for grilling meat, but is at loggerheads with the butchers' confederation over his views.

In his twin crusade -- to celebrate French skills abroad, and open minds to meat from elsewhere -- he has staged media-savvy "butchery battles" with the likes of Brooklyn's neo-butchers, champions of sustainably sourced meat.

Back at home, butchery's changing image is drawing recruits from unlikely quarters, with university students changing tack to study the trade, according to the federation's head Christian Le Lann.

But despite decent pay and good prospects -- Desnoyer calls it one of "the last functioning social ladders" -- butchery as a whole is struggling to recruit, with some 4,000 jobs vacant nationwide.

So Desnoyer is on the war path, last month taking out a newspaper column to alert to the opportunities being missed, with youth unemployment at 22 percent.

"In our business you start as an apprentice, but many end up their own boss," agreed Le Lann.