Rural France presses the panic button: Some Britons regard the French agricultural lobby as greedy and self-seeking. In the first of a three-part series on the nation's farmers, Julian Nundy, writing from La Romieu, assesses their influence

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The Independent Online
OSCAR COUPEY arrived home one day recently to find gendarmes waiting in his farmyard. They had come to share their anxiety. Soon, they said, they would be obliged to accompany bailiffs to bankrupt farms to seize property and expel families.

As a founder member of Rural Co-ordination, a militant farmers' defence association set up a year ago, Mr Coupey regularly participates in the protests which are a feature of life in the French countryside.

He is one of many in this south-western corner of France who believe that bankruptcy prompted by agricultural reform will drive people to desperate acts.

The classic prediction is of farmers barricading themselves in and defending themselves with hunting rifles.

The police, he said, 'were in a panic. They said they would have to throw people out, families who have lived there for several generations, who won't put up with being treated like dirt.'

So far, banks have been slow to collect their debts, apparently from a fear that this could unleash such violence.

'That's why the state is frightened, that's why the politicians are frightened,' said Mr Coupey, reflecting on the apparently inflated importance the authorities give to people who make up only 5 or 6 per cent of the voting population.

The local chamber of agriculture said some 30 per cent of farms in the Gers department, near Toulouse, were defaulting on loans. The Gers, which was 66th in agricultural production in France in the 1970s, rose to 10th place the following decade after farmers from elsewhere were given grants to move there. Seventy per cent of the 180,000 inhabitants of Gers depend on farming.

'One farmer called us recently and said his neighbours on both sides were going into liquidation,' said Philippe Arnaud, secretary-general of Rural Co-ordination. 'We told him to put up notices declaring the farms 'Under the protection of Rural Co-ordination'.' Although the gesture was purely psychological, it was hoped to give the authorities pause for thought.

The organisation says farmers should be given help, such as freezing interest repayments on loans, to get them over the next few difficult years. Already, they are suffering from falling prices for their yield after years of plenty in the 1980s, when, they said, they were encouraged to expand with easy credits and tax breaks.

The catalyst for the creation of Rural Co-ordination in the Gers 12 months ago was reform of the European Community's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) completed in May, coupled with falling prices for many crops over the past few years. The CAP reform aims to dismantle subsidies and food mountains. French farmers complain that it does little to protect European farming and should give a clear 'preference communautaire', favouring EC products.

'The CAP reform favours bad farmers, bonus-hunters,' Mr Arnaud said. 'It's the efficient ones who will suffer.'

Rural Co-ordination aims to cut across traditional union lines in the belief that the main farmers' union, the FNSEA, had betrayed its membership, often siding with the government.

It also wants to attract the 15 to 20 per cent of voters, doctors, teachers and civil servants who live in rural areas, to serve the farming community. Although they are outside agriculture, these people have a vested interest in its survival to maintain their own lifestyle.

As the new movement grew - its founders estimate it has 10,000 members - it attracted a number of epithets. It was taxed with extremism or 'Poujadisme', a reference to the movement of the 1950s headed by Pierre Poujade, set up to protect small shopkeepers against big distribution networks. Jean-Marie Le Pen, now leader of the far-right National Front, made his political start in the Poujadist movement.

In the neighbouring Landes department, Nicolas Jacquet, a maize-grower, said Rural Co-ordination there had attracted both big farmers and the smallholders who had traditionally been members of Modef, a small union close to the Communist Party.

'The FNSEA said we were an alliance of reds and fat cats.' After a year of often spectacular violence in 1991, the emergence of Rural Co-ordination, with which the government has so far refused any dialogue, brought fears that new levels of militancy, particularly a 'jacquerie', or peasant revolt, would cloud the already troubled French farming scene.

As it is, the fears are so far unfounded. The militancy of the French peasantry has turned to a fatalistic depression as the farmers, from the highly successful who grow crops on an industrial scale to the often poor smallholders, grapple with the implications of EC reform and the Gatt compromise agreed between Washington and the Community on agriculture, which France has said it will reject. Whatever the truth about their future, their own views of what is going happen are nothing short of catastrophic.

'The turn has been too brutal,' said Francis Antoniolli, an estate agent in the town of Vic-Fezensac, whose parents were Italian immigrant farmers. 'They don't understand what's going on and it hasn't been explained to them. They have lost their points of reference. As a result, nothing is moving. Some people would like to sell but there's no one to buy. And they can protest and demonstrate as much as they like - it's over.'

One implication is that the changes will kill the convivial essence of life in the French countryside, a place for writers, artists and weary cityfolk where the quality of the food and drink is matched only by the beauty of the views.

'We just don't understand how you can live glued together in your cities,' said Mr Antoniolli.

Farmers believe their numbers will be cut by half or even two thirds in the next few years from just over 1 million now. They and some of their backers in the towns say the whole fabric of rural life is at risk. As in all developed societies, the movement from the country to the cities began long ago. In the 18th century, two out of three French people worked on the land. Now, it is one in 16. In 1850, there were 9 million farms in France. In 1970, there were 2.75 million, according to census figures. By 1990, there were 1.5 million. In the 1960s, a farm of 30 hectares (74 acres) could support a family; now it takes at least 60.

'SOS - Vie Rurale' is one slogan in car windows along roads where crudely drawn posters, often predicting 'desertification' and denouncing May's reform of the CAP, are nailed to the trees.

The pessimists say that, with some land turned over to lie fallow under the reforms and likely to prompt an exodus to the cities, the countryside will become wild and overrun, wiping out 1,000 years of cultivation.

It is a view which has all but eclipsed ecologists' earlier complaints that modern farming methods were hurting the land and polluting the soil and rivers.

'The villages where there used to be several dozen farms will end up with just three families with big farms,' said Mr Antoniolli. 'The other houses will all become country or retirement homes for people from the cities.'

Jacques Chirac, the leader of the Gaullist RPR party, told a television newscaster recently: 'What it means is that your country house will be surrounded by brambles. And there will be nowhere for you to buy a newspaper or cigarettes.'

(Photograph omitted)