Farmers blame their leaders for 'betrayal': In the last of a three-part series on French agriculture, Julian Nundy reports on widespread bitterness and confusion about the future

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TO HEAR many politicians and farmers' leaders talk, the problems of French agriculture are the fault of US imperialism and its main European lackey, Britain.

In French farmhouses, however, while there is resentment at American and British positions over the Gatt negotiations, the most bitter criticism is reserved for the French government and traditional union leaders. For there is a strong sentiment that the reforms which many farmers fear spell the end of an era have not been explained, and that the main agricultural union has connived at reducing the rural population behind its members' backs.

To support this argument, the militant Rural Co-ordination, founded a year ago to offer an alternative to the established unions, has a document which its leaders say fell into their hands.

The 10th Plan, drawn up by the former centrist planning minister, Lionel Stoleru, and covering the years 1989 to 1991, has a preamble saying it was written in consultation with and with the agreement of leaders of the main FNSEA national farmers' union and affiliated bodies. It approved future reforms - aimed at cutting surplus production - which the farmers say will drive many of them into the cities.

The FNSEA, representing three-quarters of France's 1 million or so farmers, says the document is a fake, that its leaders never took part in such discussions. Peasants' representatives, however, point to the traditional closeness of relations between the government and the main union.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that the traditional leaders are discredited in many peasants' eyes. 'The 10th Plan shows that the unions betrayed us,' says Philippe Cockenpot, a cereal-grower in Fleurance in the south-western Gers department. 'All they do is go and see the minister and say they're happy,' says Jean Baptiste on a nearby smallholding.

The farmers complain that their leaders told them in the past that the original Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), largely tailored to French agriculture's needs, was the only correct policy. Then they told them the reforms approved last May, to cut back surplus production and eliminate subsidies, were right too. 'They should be hanged,' says Henri Mendras, a sociologist at the National Council for Scientific Research and author of books on the decline of the French peasantry.

The government, frightened that the peasantry might get out of hand, has worked so closely with the FNSEA that the Agriculture Ministry and the union frequently speak with the same voice, Mr Mendras adds. 'The drama of the current situation is that nothing is explained to the farmers.'

The FNSEA is one of the cogs in the control of French agriculture. The others are local chambers of agriculture, the state Credit Agricole bank and the co- operatives which buy the crops. 'The federation (the FNSEA), the Credit Agricole and the co-operatives are all the same people,' says Gerard Guedela, a dairy farmer in the Gers.

In the Gers, the local Credit Agricole itself folded last year and has been amalgamated with that in two neighbouring departments. Huge loans to a builder and a foie gras maker who both went bankrupt, as well as, unknowingly, to a syndicate making fake champagne in Cuba, were its main problems.

With world prices for their crops falling, farmers blame the bank for approving loans in the 1980s. Mr Cockenpot, who farms 300 hectares (741 acres) with his brother, says he put Fr2m ( pounds 240,000) into irrigation projects. 'All the loan dossiers were accepted,' he says. 'The Credit Agricole incited people to borrow,' says Mr Baptiste.

Mr Guedela says part of the problem is that farmers listened too readily to bad advice. 'People would rip up vines because there were subsidies to encourage them to plant cereals, only to regret it later. They would often take what seemed an easy solution.'

Mr Guedela considers that his neighbours' problems are similar to those he faced when the EC introduced milk quotas 10 years ago and from which he recovered. 'We have been badly informed,' he says. 'The great error was to accept the CAP reform. That is the greater problem, but they're making all the fuss over Gatt.'

This points to another complaint: that the CAP reform was approved before the Gatt negotiations on agriculture were concluded. Farmers maintain the two should have been linked and that the EC should not have revealed its hand until the Gatt talks were near their end.

'They accepted the CAP to make us swallow Maastricht,' says Mr Guedela, arguing that the French government wanted a clean EC slate in the months running up to the September ratification of the European Union treaty. Now, farmers want the government to go back on the CAP reform. Opposition to Gatt from eminent figures such as the Nobel prize-winning economist Maurice Allais as well as some captains of industry, fuels such hopes.

Amid often dire speculation over what is about to happen to the French countryside as the peasants leave, Mr Mendras says a solution would be to slash cereal- growing and encourage the luxury products such as wine and foie gras which are the pride of France and seek out new markets.

Oscar Coupey produces pruneaux d'Agen alongside cereals on the 230 hectares that he farms. He and his father have started making a prune brandy which needed Fr100,000-worth of equipment to store and distil. 'We've never dealt with commercialisation before.' Mr Guedela says. 'we're told to diversify but it costs Fr400,000- Fr500,000 to build a chicken-run. If the price of chickens drops, you're lost.'

Mr Cockenpot points out that the FR2m he put into irrigation bought equipment specifically adapted to cereals and he cannot diversify. 'We realise that we made mistakes but we were encouraged to cut down woods and produce.' Another farmer's wife says of the Cockenpots: 'They were model farmers. They came here from the north and were a success story. Now they're 40 they have to sell their cars to buy smaller ones. It's painful.'

Mr Coupey's father says agricultural policy was based for too long on the needs of the 1950s 'when everything was in short supply after the war. First we were told to produce quantity, then 20 years ago to concentrate on quality. We ended up growing too much too well.'

The CAP reform is expected to hit the middle-sized and larger cereals farms and beef producers in the short term. Smaller farms, especially those producing the quality items which Mr Mendras favours, are likely to be unaffected immediately.

But, the younger Mr Coupey says, if the bigger producers do diversify they will go into the sectors which are currently the preserve of the smallholder. 'If we start putting out foie gras, we'll do it on an industrial level and we could flood the market. I don't want to sink my neighbour.' That, says Nicolas Jacquet, a maize-grower in the neighbouring Landes department, is the eventual aim of the CAP reform and French government policy, 'to eliminate the small farmers in the long term'.

(Photograph omitted)