Why EU makes Bordeaux see pink

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The Independent Online
Listening to Guy Saint-Martin attack les technocrates de Bruxelles and les ultra-liberaux, it is hard to believe that the Socialist mayor of Boe cannot make his voice heard in the European Union capital. So penetrating is his throaty invective that it seems to echo far across the strawberry fields of the Garonne valley.

Roads around Boe will be splattered pink with strawberry juice again next month, Mr Saint-Martin warns, when French farmers try to halt cheap Spanish strawberries flooding in across the borders. Sir Leon Brittan (a name he utters with evident disgust) wants to open French markets to all the world. "For the benefit of whom - the multinationals?

"Europe must be strong, yes. I believe in Europe. I voted Yes to Maastricht, " he says. "But today I would certainly vote No. The people are no longer heard. We will not be told what to do by technocrats in Brussels. And now, what is this we hear? They want to limit our hunting season. Have they not got better things to do? This is our culture. Who are the technocrats to say when a man can shoot a pigeon. Qu'est-ce que c'est que ca?" he booms.

Throughout the region of Aquitaine, there is a spreading unease about the way that Europe appears to be dictating unwelcome change, and it crosses the political divide.

Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine, was the scene of massive demonstrations against cuts in public-service spending last year. The fact that Alain Juppe, the Prime Minister in France's Gaullist government, is Mayor of Bordeaux drew huge angry crowds to the city.

The cuts were linked to France's need to meet convergence criteria for monetary union, and, while demonstrations were not specifically aimed at Brussels, the strength of the protests and the widespread support they won across the social spectrum revealed a general malaise about Europe.

"Many people here now see Maastricht as a constraint; as rules and interference . . . They fear more and more about losing their identity," says Jean-Pierre Bebear, a Juppe supporter, member of the European Parliament, and a Bordeaux doctor. "If we voted here tomorrow for a new Maastricht we would have difficulty."

Last week, in his proposals for the Inter-Governmental Conference on European reform which begins in Turin next week, Mr Juppe appeared to heed the message from Bordeaux, reaffirming the pre- eminence of the "nation-state".

The nature of Bordelais Euro-scepticism would be both familiar and puzzling to a sceptic Briton. The people joke here that they have always resisted the centralising diktat of Paris - never mind Brussels - and some say that the region has never been more content than during its period of relative autonomy under English Plantagenet rule.

But very few in Aquitaine - or anywhere in France - would describe themselves as anti-European. Most say they believe that Europe is the future.

A first glance across the proud vineyards of the Medoc, the rich forests of the Landes, or the grand boulevards of Bordeaux suggests a region glowing with confidence. French farmers, for example, have largely done very well out of the EU, with incomes in Aquitaine rising in recent years. The maize producers of the region learnt during the Gatt world-trade talks of the necessity of a strong Europe standing as a bloc.

The farmers had to battle to stop US access to their markets. In Aquitaine, US economic power is viewed with far greater suspicion than any German giant. Furthermore, the people here are positively in favour of the single currency, believing that the stabilising of exchange rates can only help their economy, protecting them from currency devaluations in neighbouring states.

They are delighted that the French euro coin is to be minted at Pessac, on the borders of Bordeaux. Their only concern is that Germany is imposing such strictures that France may not make the grade.

But the region nevertheless feels deep anxiety. The most common complaint is familiar one, but voiced with ever more urgency. There is a "loss of identity" and a threat to "French culture". European government is a manifestation of "globalisation" - a word they spit in thick Bordelais accents. People know that simply to blame Brussels is naive. But they argue that the decisions of the EU are hastening the process, while doing nothing to alleviate its worst effects. Markets are being opened for "political" reasons. Moroccan tomatoes are now being given greater access to French markets.

But why should French farmers suffer to help Morocco? After the EU-Asia summit in Bangkok, there is fear of Asian competition. "We are the best - that is not the problem," says Mr Saint-Martin. "But how are we to compete with prices from Vietnam? Ultra-liberalism will break Europe."

The people of Aquitaine voice criticism of Europe as much for what it is doing as for what it is not doing. While nobody expects Brussels to halt the economic revolution or to turn "protectionist", it should protect local cultures and help to promote jobs.

They believed in Maastricht because it would make Europe a more coherent whole. Instead, says Mr Bebear, it proved "complicated, badly explained, badly constructed". The result is enormous frustration and a sense of impotence.

Recent attempts to force the French to end the hunting season on 31 January have only confirmed the worst fears about the lopsided priorities of the technocrats in Brussels. "People ask why are they talking about hunting when they should be solving social problems and dealing with the unemployed," says Pierre Cherruau, of Sud-Ouest. "People here believe in Europe but they don't believe this is the best way," says Philippe Costemale, at the regional council.