France's apple growers shaken to the core by supermarket ban

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Indy Politics

Henri Pluvinage listed the varieties of apples in his orchard as lovingly as though he were naming his children. There were Reine des Reinettes, Belle de Boskoop and Golden Delicious, lying windfallen among the trees. Hidden among the leaves where they had been missed by the pickers, there were still a few Melrose, hard and shiny with white, clean-tasting flesh.

Henri Pluvinage listed the varieties of apples in his orchard as lovingly as though he were naming his children. There were Reine des Reinettes, Belle de Boskoop and Golden Delicious, lying windfallen among the trees. Hidden among the leaves where they had been missed by the pickers, there were still a few Melrose, hard and shiny with white, clean-tasting flesh.

At this time of year, with the harvest now over, Mr Pluvinage would expect much of his fruit to be sitting on the shelves of British supermarkets. Instead that portion of his crop remains in the warehouse, while the trade war that last week saw a number of stores stop buying French fruit continues.

"I can sympathise with the British farmers," sighed Mr Pluvinage, a courteous, amiable man and a fruit-grower for the past 24 years. "I can understand their situation but what I cannot understand is why they are encouraging the British public to stop buying French apples. It makes no sense whatsoever. We have nothing to do with all of this."

In his calm and quiet tones, Mr Pluvinage speaks for the forgotten victims of the current cross-channel dispute. The farmers who forced a temporary blockade of British lorry drivers at Calais earlier this week and those who have since seized the lion's share of the publicity, appear to come predominantly from the beef industry.

But away from the headlines and soundbites, scores of fruit producers such as Mr Pluvinage are quietly seeing their livelihoods go to the wall.

The 50-year-old, whose orchards stretch across 60 hectares (150 acres) of gently curving plains in the Oise valley, 45 miles east of Paris, is quick to point out that he personally is unlikely to be destroyed by the dispute. His trade with the British supermarkets - which he repeatedly refused to name - is usually worth around £300,000. It is a lot of money to lose but it is only a percentage of his trade.

At the warehouse and packaging site in the small village of Le Plessis-Belleville, a couple of miles from the orchards, Mr Pluvinage employs 14 full-time staff, supplemented by up to 60 more during the harvest in September and October. "Because of the supermarkets deciding not to take my apples we have had to reorganise the way we work," he said.

"We have not had to fire anyone but we have had to cut the hours of the staff. We hope next week that all of this will be finished and we will be able to go back to normal."

In that sense, Mr Pluvinage and his employees are the lucky ones - many growers have been hit much harder.

The French apple-growing industry is vast and exports 800,000 tonnes of fruit every year - a trade that is worth billions of francs to the country's economy.

Of all its markets, Britain is the largest and most important, importing up to 300,000 tons of apples - a large percentage of which are of the red and golden delicious variety - every year.

In some regions of France, particularly in the Loire valley and in the south-west of the country, there are producers for whom the British market represents 60 per cent or more of their total trade.

It is these producers - many of whom have had to lay off much of their workforce as a result of the boycott - who have the most to lose from what they consider a "mindless" reaction from Britain to a dispute over a product they have nothing to do with.

Mr Pluvinage, whose father started the family business in 1956, is also chairman of the northern branch of the French apple growers association and a member of the national body which coordinates the promotion of French fruit. His particular area of responsibility is Britain.

In this capacity he has been speaking to fellow producers since last week, when a number of British supermarkets - among them Budgen and Somerfield - cleared their shelves of French apples and pears in "support of British farmers".

"Of course the growers are angry. They are very concerned. Everybody is suffering as a result of this - most much more than me," he said.

"I am sure that there are some British consumers who felt that they did not want to eat French produce but I feel that generally this was probably not the case. We produce a healthy natural product and one that the British consumer certainly enjoys eating.

"But there is a chain effect in all of this ... People are angry because all their hard work is being wasted and their lives are being disrupted by a decision over which they have no control."

It is not just the growers who feel angry. Among the small communities scattered across the Oise - and, in reality, amid the general French population - there is a growing sense of dismay at the actions of the British. A few miles from Le Plessis-Belleville, in the pretty village of Ermonville, Jean-Pierre Desmet was serving customers in his fuel station.

"A boycott would not be good for anyone, it makes no sense," he said, as he drank a cup of coffee. "I have no idea why the British are doing this. You tell me - I don't know what they are thinking. I think there is something wrong with their minds."

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