Chirac takes a pitchfork to farm subsidy revolution

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JACQUES CHIRAC is the farmer's friend. Ever since he was agriculture minister in the Seventies, he has been a hugely popular figure in the French countryside. He has, it is said, kissed more cows than any other living politician.

Why, then, is President Chirac - supported by fellow politicians of the French centre-right - taking a pitchfork to a plan to save rural France?

All this week, the National Assembly is debating a proposal to reverse four decades of agricultural policy and stop, or at least slow, the depopulation and the increasing pollution of the French countryside.

The Socialist agriculture minister, Louis Le Pensec, wants to shift French farm policy away from its 38-year obsession with increased productivity and subsidised, bulk exports. A proposed framework law, the first since 1960, would root farm policy in environmental and social, as well as economic, considerations.

Farmers would be encouraged to take out "contracts" with the state; the level of their subsidies would depend on their contribution to the preservation of nature, the creation of jobs and the improvement of food quality. In other words, farm subsidies, partly funded by the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), would no longer be linked to greater and greater output.

So great a revolution is this in French thinking that Mr Le Pensec's fellow European Union farm ministers sat in stunned silence when he first outlined his ideas in Brussels. His plan fits in some, but not all, respects with the European Commission's own proposals for further reform of the CAP.

The new approach is partly a response to growing public disquiet, especially in northern France and Brittany, about the environmental damage from the chemically dependent farming of cereals and pigs. It is also a reaction to the BSE crisis and the growing anxiety of consumers about the methods used in intensive food production.

But it is first and foremost a belated recognition of the plight of smaller, family farms in France, whose interests have been trampled by the Paris - and Brussels - obsession with subsidised productivity and exports, at the expense of quality and properly targeted markets. Thirty years ago, there were more than two million farms in France. There are now fewer than 700,000; and the figure is falling by 3,000 every month.

Their disappearance explains the cheapness of rural properties in France, gobbled up for British holiday homes or Parisian weekend retreats. Up to 200,000 farms and 1,500 French villages are expected to disappear in the next 20 years.

In his preamble to the proposed law, Mr Le Pensec says "European agriculture will race to its own destruction" unless it switches its policy from intensive, environmentally damaging production and focuses instead on creating high-quality food tailored to consumer demand. Under present policies, he pointed out, one-fifth of French farms, those that are the biggest, receive 80 per cent of the national and EU subsidies on offer.

His proposals have been savagely attacked by Gaullist and other centre- right deputies this week as a betrayal of France's global interests, as the world's second largest exporter of food (after the United States).

President Chirac led the way in a speech in Cantal, centralFrance, last weekend in which he spoke of the "vocation for exports" of French agriculture.

Farmers should not be turned into "gardeners of the countryside, appointed by the state", he said. French farm policy should be geared, pre-eminently, to "increased production and exports".

The President was, in effect, speaking not for French farmers, but for the food export companies, and the wealthy, intensive cereal-growing and pork-rearing interests of northern and western France, who have generously supported the Gaullists and other centre-right parties over the years.

Mr Chirac, the farmer's friend, is out of step with most French farmers, and especially the beef and sheep farmers in his own hilly stronghold in Correze, west-central France, who would benefit from Mr Le Pensec's new approach.

The old philosophy of productivity at all costs was once blindly accepted by the farm unions, even though it was against the long-term interests of many of their members. In recent years, the old approach has been fiercely contested, within the unions themselves, by the representatives of smaller, family-scale farms.

The question is what Mr Chirac will do if the proposals, as expected, pass the gauntlet of 400 or more centre-right amendments mostly unscathed? Will he use his presidential powers of veto, or delay, to reject a farm policy supported by most French farmers?