PARIS DAYS : Animal libbers find themselves on a hiding to nothing

There is a gentle lowing to be heard not half a dozen miles from the centre of Paris this week, and a whiff of the barnyard. The ``biggest farm in France'' has come to town.

It says something about this country that the international agricultural show is held in the Parc des Expositions de Paris, the counterpart to London's Olympia. London has ideal homes; Paris has the farm to end all farms. Closest to the entrance were white Aquitaine cows, each with her domestic name inscribed along with her weight on a board above her pen. There were Camelia, Gloire, Gentiane and Elsa - and Delicate, weighing in at a modest 718kg.

Whole families had brought them: Papa led the beast to the show ring; Mama urged it on with a long wooden stick, and ruddy-complexioned son or daughter held on to the tail. The medallists were curry-combing their exhibits for the cameras; young men with long-handled shovels walked casually behind.

The pigs were fearsome; white and bristly. The sheep, with rare exceptions, large and docile - and dirty. But everyone wanted to delve their hands into the oily wool.

Yet it was not primarily the animals that I had come to see. I was on the lookout for the animal liberationists who had mounted a small demonstration on the opening day.They were said to have a stand, where they showed shocking videos, not just of veal calves chained to their pens, but of Albanians kicking pigs to tenderise them before slaughter, and other objectionable behaviour.

The animal libbers, though, proved elusive. From the main show-ring, where the last class of Aquitaine cows were being inspected, past the honey stalls and the goats, the trail led into a second cavernous hall where shire horses and hunting dogs were in residence, along with saddles and English Barbours and other accoutrements of country life. Through them to market gardening, where the rustic furniture, the beehives and the greenhouses gave way to poultry on one side and rabbits on the other. The screeching from the hen and guinea fowl enclosure made it sound like a torture chamber. But the rabbits, graded by size up to a whopping Harveyesque 9kg, munched quietly away, unperturbed and stroked by all comers. Behind the exhibits was another large enclosure labelled unambiguously: Bureau du vente - animaux.

About 50 people sat watching a film about potato-growing and selection: ``La pomme de terre - c'est sympa!'' was the advertising pitch; their attention was rapt. But there were still no animal liberationists.

They were hardly likely to classify themselves with the snails, but it was worth a look. France's snail-raisers are among the show's most serious visitors, asking erudite questions about how best to feed their escargots, and whether a square snail house was better or worse for fattening them up than letting them roam free across tiles arranged in peaks.

It was at the snail exhibit that an awful truth dawned. The snails in their square houses were crawling around right beside a collection of tins and microwave ovens, and herbs and butter. Alongside the goat enclosures, a mobile lab was making cheese-while-you-watch. Just behind the sheep pens were stalls selling ``cassoulet de mouton - 100 per cent''; behind the cows were case upon case of exquisitely butchered meat, "milk-fed veal'' and calves' livers.

Next to the creperie was the ``bovine artificial insemination centre" advertised in large letters; and the charcuterie vans were everywhere. You didn't need any animal liberationists to point out the link. It was everywhere, for all to see - celebrate even. In one form or other, these animals were for breeding and eating, mainly eating. No beating about the bush, no further questions asked.

By now, there seemed little point in continuing the search for the animal liberationists. They were on to a loser here, no doubt about it. Suddenly, my attention was caught by a bright blue and white stall at the exit, emblazoned with the legend ``je veux te manger''.I had a look. They were selling popcorn.

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