European Times A Small village in Normandy - Poisonous politics among the cowpats

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The Independent Online
ALL POLITICS is local and there is no politics so human, and so dirty, as local politics. Literally dirty, in the case of the tiny Norman village where we spent the New Year holidays.

Since I first reported on the activities of our neighbour, Jean-Michel, the world's most incompetent dairy farmer, the story has moved on, comically, but also tragically.

The village roads have sunk even deeper under liquid cow-manure. Jean-Michel's neglected farmyard has overspilt like a foul- smelling volcano, sending a dark, sticky lava-flow down the steep lane towards the notional centre of the hamlet.

At the insistence of his mysteriously respectable girl-friend, Jean-Michel, 27, has abandoned his doorless hovel in the path of the lava flow. He has moved into her bungalow in a village six miles away (making him the world's only absentee dairy farmer and milking times even later and more haphazard than before).

Jean-Michel's tractor, always a temperamental machine, now works only in reverse gear. It lumbers out of the Norman mist, like a steam locomotive working tender first, usually towing some piece of rusting farm machinery that has been precariously chained to the front bumper. The frail, pale, bearded, unwashed Jean-Michel sits facing backwards, glancing irregularly over his shoulder to check for oncoming traffic.

And now comes the tragic part. A person unknown, most likely in revenge for some, or all, of the above mis- demeanours, has poisoned two of Jean-Michel's many dogs.

Eeyache and Rikiki were friendly dogs, adored by our small children. The village is quieter and poorer for their passing. Other dogs in the large and constantly changing pack surrounding Jean-Michel were more threatening. But the two who ate the poisoned meat - deliberately left for them, Jean- Michel is convinced - were harmless, floppy creatures. They died in agony. Who could have done such a terrible thing?

It does not need the detective powers or rural intuition of a Miss Marple to work out that one. There are only 11 full-time residents of the village, 20 when the weekend and holiday homes fill up as they did over the New Year break.

The only other active farmer in the village, the neat and efficient Andre, despises Jean-Michel and calls him contemptuously "L'Acrobate" (since he is constantly juggling somewhere between failure and disaster). But Andre is a gentle, humorous man who would not poison an animal deliberately.

There is our next-door neighbour, Marcel, deputy mayor of the local commune, which includes several other hamlets and villages. He is a saturnine, crafty, misogynist, retired farmer, with a wife who never appears out of doors. But he has cynical reasons to wish Jean-Michel well, as we shall see.

Then there are our chief, local benefactors, Michel and Madeleine, who work in the town 20 miles away during the week. They adore, and would do anything for, good food, animals and small children. Since they had more or less adopted the clumsy, half-blind Eeyache, they are definitely not suspects.

Excluding ourselves, that leaves only Jean-Michel's next-door neighbour and his large, extended family. The Neighbour is a quietly brutal sort of man who commutes into town each day and lives for shooting birds and growing vegetables. He detests Jean-Michel for many reasons, but chiefly because Jean-Michel's horse, Geronimo, chased and bit another horse so violently one day last year that it fell over a fence and squashed a large part of the Neighbour's vegetable garden.

By prior arrangement, the gentle Michel and I jointly cornered Jean-Michel to complain that the liquid manure was now several inches deep on the roads, which made going for a stroll or stepping out of one's car less pleasant than it should be. Jean-Michel admitted that he was a "cochon" (pig) but promised nothing. "Who poisoned my dogs, that's what I want to know?" he said.

Why did he not go to the gendarmes, I asked. He laughed: "People complain to the gendarmes about me. How can I go to them?"

He then went on to complain that Marcel, the retired farmer and deputy mayor, had given him such a bad deal when he bought out his cows and machinery two years ago - "C'est un voleur, lui" (he's just a thief) - that he could hardly keep up the payments.

Marple-like, the pieces of the mystery fell into place. Why, despite constant complaints, did the commune do nothing to force Jean-Michel to clean the public roads? Was it because Marcel was fearful that even occasional road-scraping would destroy the fragile economy of the ramshackle farm and threaten his repayments? Did the Neighbour, furious that his constant complaints about Jean-Michel always came to nothing, take direct action by spreading poison for the dogs?

Ah, the pleasures of a quiet week in the country.

As we were wading through the road outside to pack the car to leave, Jean-Michel wandered up with a piece of grubby paper on which he had written the telephone number at his girlfriend's house.

"The next time you are coming," he mumbled apologetically. "Call me in advance. I'll try to do something about the road ..."

Turning over the piece of paper, we found that the number was scribbled on the back of an official laboratory report on Jean-Michel's milk. On 24 June 1998, his cows got surprisingly high marks. He must, secretly, be doing something right.