As the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) negotiations wound up last week amid French proclamations of triumph, a small farmers' union grouping a new militant fringe held its annual congress in this town of 57,000 between Poitiers and the Atlantic coast.
The meeting of the French Agriculture Federation (FFA), which is allied to the two-year-old, tempestuous Rural Co-ordination, was a subdued event despite the leaders' exhortations for delegates to seek the overturn of Gatt and of the reform of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Agriculture originally inspired French opposition to Gatt a year ago, but the future of the French film industry and 'the cultural exception' supplanted farming in the last days.
The farmers in Niort heard Professor Jean-Francois Sneessens, an agricultural economist from the University of Louvain in Belgium, tell them how decades of subsidies and artificially fixed prices had produced distortions in the marketplace.
At one point, a telephone link with Paris brought the voice of Philippe Arnaud, the secretary-general of Rural Co-ordination, into the hall. He was leading a demonstration of farmers against Gatt outside the National Assembly. The demonstration was a failure, since only 2,000 turned up, according to Mr Arnaud's own estimate, and he spoke of the 'bitterness' the protestors felt. 'We're thinking of going to the American Embassy to ask for asylum since that's a country which looks after its farmers,' he said.
Some North Americans are trying to recruit French farmers. In recent weeks, a delegation from Quebec has toured France looking for peasants who might want to take the place of Canadians who have joined the migration to the cities. In France proper, farmers' leaders believe reform of agriculture will reduce the peasant population of 1 million by two-thirds in a few years.
The talk in Niort was about impending doom. The CAP reform and Gatt amounted to 'submission to the foreigner, decline and scorched earth', said Henri Gaulandeau, the FFA president. The talk was of resistance to the mainstream farmers' national union, the FNSEA.
The FFA and Rural Co-ordination were both founded in opposition to the FNSEA and the young farmers' union, the CNJA, which, they believe, sold France's farmers out as their executives concentrated on their own careers. As an illustration, they point to two FNSEA leaders, the Gaullist Francois Guillaume and the Socialist Henri Nallet, who both became agriculture minister in the past decade.
In this context, a book by Michel Leblanc, a former CNJA deputy secretary-general, hits out at all farmers' representatives from Rural Co-ordination, which Mr Leblanc suggests was inspired by the far right, to the traditional unions.
His book is called The Farmer, the Whore and the Deputy and the traditional unions are the 'whore'. He paints a picture of them acquiescing in EC subsidies which gave generous perks to the already prosperous cereal farmers of the Paris basin and little real help to the rest.
Mr Leblanc, who praises the modernisation of British and Dutch farming - he himself was sent to a British pig farm by his father as part of his training and found 'a dynamic and very scientific agriculture angled towards the future' - argues that self-seeking union leaders in France are interested only in maintaining the status quo and have missed opportunities to develop and save France's rural life. He specifically advocates farming for industrial uses such as biological fuels.
As the government claimed victory in Gatt last week, Mr Gaulandeau told his colleagues they were living through 'a torment where farmers are in the eye of the storm, where their distress is such that they have no points of reference and they even have doubts about their place in society'. Warning them that 'a corrupt handful' could seek to intimidate peasants, he asked them to be alert, adding that 'a serious dispute already divides the bulk of farmers from the small circle which does cartwheels on the steps of ministries'.Reuse content