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.

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