Obituary: Michel Debatisse

On 27 May 1968, the agricultural trade union leader Michel Debatisse was in the depths of the French countryside when he received an urgent message from the Elysee Palace. General de Gaulle wished to see him the following afternoon at four o'clock. This was a puzzling invitation because the 1968 crisis was at its height. Francois Mitterrand was proclaiming himself head of a provisional government and the Communist Party had planned a massive demonstration which would culminate in a rally in the neighbourhood of the Elysee. But Debatisse did not hesitate to present himself at the time requested.

For more than an hour, as Debatisse recounted in his book Le Projet Paysan (1983), the General explained that everything was lost; the internal and external enemies of France had joined forces and that there was nothing he could do. Debatisse claims that he told de Gaulle that he was wrong, the country looked to him: only he could save France from this disaster. As he left he urged de Gaulle to act, to speak to the nation. The General put his hand on Debatisse's shoulder and said, "Eh, bien! Debatisse, je parlerai."

What the General said was much the same as he was to say to General Massu, in his mysterious flight to Baden-Baden the next day. But why did he choose to use this language to Debatisse? One answer is that, at this time of crisis, de Gaulle wished to avoid the politicians who surrounded him and wished to contact the profound forces of France. In his eyes this meant the army (hence his meeting with Massu). And also the peasant, the traditional backbone of the country. Hence Debatisse.

Michel Debatisse, who died in Palladuc, the small village in the Auvergne where he was born, was an unusually fine representative of the peasantry. He was born in rural poverty, one of seven children in a small farm. It was a coincidence that in the same year, 1929, the Jeunesse Agricole Catholique was founded on the initiative of the Jesuits. What was originally a movement with an evangelical intention became a movement for the reform of agriculture. As one of its leaders put it, charity must become technical. It was as a young militant in this movement that Debatisse became prominent in French public life, eventually becoming the creator and the leader of the Centre National des Jeunes Agriculteurs and the President of the Federation Nationale des Syndicats des Exploitants Agricoles.

One always hears about revolutions in France and there is never agreement about whether they are or are not taking place. But one revolution that has taken place is the agricultural revolution and it was led by men such as Debatisse and first explained in public by him in his 1963 book La Revolution Silencieuse. One no longer talks about peasants, one talks about "agriculteurs". One was born a peasant but one has to learn how to be an agriculteur. From being the majority of the national population and forming a world apart, as depicted in the works of Zola and Giono, those engaged in agriculture form only 6 per cent of the active population, but they are fully integrated in French political and economic society.

Debatisse saw the importance of the Common Market for French agriculture and he was in close contact with Edgard Pisani, the minister responsible for negotiating the Common Agricultural Policy in the 1960s. He was the only trade union leader to be regularly received by de Gaulle, and he exploited the Auvergne connection in order to remain close friends with Giscard d'Estaing. He became Secretary of State in the last government of his Presidency, being responsible for the agro-alimentary section of the economy to the prime minister Raymond Barre. He was also for a time a member of the European Parliament.

Although he represented the modern stand in French agriculture, Debatisse was a master of the traditional methods of protestation, leading many demonstrations. He was the first to lead his followers to protest outside the Communist Buildings in Brussels, and he led the first massive demonstration against President Mitterrand in March 1982.

From 1989 to 1995 he was the director of the milk-producing co-operative Sodiaal and at the time of his final illness was assisting the minister of agriculture in the Juppe government to prepare a new law of agricultural orientation. He was a charismatic leader who early understood the necessity for change in rural France.

Michel Debatisse, trade unionist: born Palladuc, Puy-de-Dome, France 1 April 1929; died Palladuc 11 June 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links