Beatrix Campbell: Stand up for cheese power

US agribusiness is under fierce attack from radical French peasants armed with bulldozers, fire hoses - and Roquefort
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The Independent Online

The glorious extremes of the climate swirling between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean is having a bracing effect on the increasingly inflammatory politics of food and farming. With an elegance and élan that we Brits do not associate with our own state-subsidised farming fraternity, French producers are improvising direct action against no less than the Faustian pharmaceutical corporations seeking world domination, the US beef industry, its icon, McDonald's, and its patron, the World Trade Organisation.

The glorious extremes of the climate swirling between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean is having a bracing effect on the increasingly inflammatory politics of food and farming. With an elegance and élan that we Brits do not associate with our own state-subsidised farming fraternity, French producers are improvising direct action against no less than the Faustian pharmaceutical corporations seeking world domination, the US beef industry, its icon, McDonald's, and its patron, the World Trade Organisation.

An unexpected hero in this scenario is the French peasant, not a force for conservatism but an activist for democracy, good food and sustainable and organic production. The star is an Asterix reincarnation called Jose Bove and his Confédération Paysanne - the progressive farmers' union formed by small producers in the mid-1980s as an alternative to the federation of big agri-industries. They have compelled the French government to engage in a great national debate about food production, genetic engineering and corporate tyranny. Bove and his comrades turned up at Seattle last year and are now familiar figures at world trade assemblies, together with Brazilian and Indian farmers, trying to withstand the might of Monsanto, the WTO et al.

Last summer Bove and four other leaders of the Confédération Paysanne bulldozed a new McDonald's being built in Millau, their little town in the south of France, the cradle of Roquefort cheese production. The French courts took a tough line. They jailed Bove and his comrades and set bail at £11,000. This summer a throng of supporters stopped the traffic in Millau, near where I'm staying, decorated walls with graffiti proclaiming "End McDomination", and handed out free Roquefort cheese.

All this is part of their campaign to expose the tactics of the WTO as sponsors of big US producers. The WTO has imposed punitive taxes on Roquefort and other local products in response to the European Union's decision to ban imports of US beef impregnated with hormones. Ninety per cent of US beef is hormone-treated.

Roquefort, the sharp, salty, blue cheese produced only in this part of France, has a piquant place in the great debate. Philippe Folliot, mayor of St Pierre de Trivisy, a village in the heart of Roquefort country, explains that Roquefort represents the antithesis of globalisation because it "is made from the milk of only one breed of sheep, it is made in only one place in France and it is made in a special way" - unlike Big Macs or Coca-Cola, which are produced in stiff uniformity in the manner of the Model T Ford, by corporations that lay waste to a landscape of local producers. It is not so much the uniformity that offends the French producers as the producers' loss of control over their own knowledge and skill and the quality of the product itself.

Bove's purpose had already been revealed in Confédération Paysanne assaults on seed corporations involved in genetic engineering. In 1998 they took a fire hose and drenched five tons of GM corn warehoused by the Novartis Seed Company in Montpellier. When Bove addressed the judge after the Novartis incident he insisted that although the action had been illegal it was legitimate. "The WTO dictates its own law," he said. "The obligation to import bovine somatotropin meat from the USA is a good example." The WTO decides "without consultation or a right of appeal".

Simultaneously challenging the mystique of modernity that is often mobilised in defence of GM food and repudiating the peasants' reputation for unthinking traditionalism, Bove asked, "why refuse something which is presented as progress? It is not because of old-fashionedness, or regret for the 'good old days', it is because of concern for the future and a will to have a say in future development."

They were not opposed to research but to "sorcerers' apprentices" in the service of megalomaniac corporations. "Productionism has enslaved farmers. From being the producer the farmer is someone who is exploited, who can no longer decide her or his way of managing the land, nor freely choose her or his techniques."

GM field trials were encouraged by the previous conservative government in France - there are more than twice as many as in Britain - but the paysanne posse has brought a revolt from the farming community in the name of a new relationship both to the land and to the consumer, a "farmers' agriculture for the benefit of everyone". This is not populist politics that mobilises moralism and modernity to restore traditional authority. It is popular politics that celebrates politics as spectacle, and exposes the problem of power embedded in everything - even in seeds and uniquely smelly cheeses.

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Britain's teachers have been surprisingly successful. Unlike miners, their trade unions have survived more or less intact the tempest of two decades of hostile governments that have treated them as both an enemy within and a force for conservatism.

The profession with unique access to children has achieved this without contributing anything creative to one of the great themes of our time - childhood. Latest in the litany of thoughts from the teachers' unions is the NUT's inclination to support the headteacher Marjorie Evans's appeal against her suspended sentence for wounding a child with special needs.

And the ruminations from the Professional Association of Teachers last week suggest concern that both parents and teachers are doing children a disservice by being over-protective. They might have joined with the great children's charities by taking the side of children. They could have steered a new kind of national conversation characterised by rapport with children rather than rage. And instead of chiding parents for mollycoddling kids, they could have reminded us that children are in greatest danger not in empty spaces stalked by strangers but in the environments where they spend most of their time with adults, including schools.

But no. Their response to a generation of children who think they have rights is to feel challenged. Their vocal reaction to children who hit out is to hit back. They call to mind a school reunion where I heard a once-loved PE teacher complain that you can't strike children these days. And worse, you can't insult them, either. "What can you do if you can't verbally abuse a child?" she asked. Use your imagination, Miss, we thought, but didn't say, so disappointed were we to discover that though we had loved her she didn't like us.

It is verily not the case that all teachers dislike children. But their organisations filter their feelings through the irascible, victimised tone of a type of trade unionism that echoes the misanthropy of Messrs Hague and Blair - aka Teach, the man with the jumper and the Hitler moustache manqué in the Beano's Bash Street kids. Like him, they're not funny.

Joan Smith is on holiday.

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