John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

The smell of hypocrisy hangs over rural France


Here are three straws blowing in the wind of rural France. They can be twisted into a corn-dolly in the shape of a single word. If "hypocrisy" is too long, try "humbug" or "cant".

First straw: For more than a month, groups of small farmers in Brittany have been taking turns to go on hunger strike. They are protesting against the French government's breathtakingly deceitful application of the new rules on European Union farm subsidies.

European farmers are now supposed to get a single payment, or lump subsidy, from Brussels rather than subsidies based on how much they produce. The declared aim is to push the snouts of the big, wealthy cereals farmers out of the trough of taxpayers' money and allow more help for smaller, more traditional farms, producing high- quality food.

Detailed application of the payouts has been left to national governments. France, and France alone, has interpreted the rules in such a way that its big cereals farmers harvest all the subsidies they received before. Its smaller farms reap no new benefit.

Second straw: Nicolas Sarkozy, the likely centre-right candidate in next year's presidential elections, spent some time with Tony Blair this year. He began to defend the Common Agricultural Policy as vitally important to France.

Tony Blair gave his usual spiel on the iniquities of farm subsidies and their effects on African farmers. M. Sarkozy stood on his head and agreed with Mr Blair.

Downing Street was left with the impression that M. Sarkozy's political ideas - apparently so radical and determined - are, in the words of one Blair adviser, "strangely unformed". At least, they concluded, M. Sarkozy was open to argument on the future of the CAP, unlike President Jacques Chirac.

Last week, M. Sarkozy, an urban politician who is struggling for the farm vote, addressed a conference on "rural values" organised by his party. He said that, if elected, he would try to reverse the entire machinery of CAP reform of the past 15 years. Farmers should go back to the good old days of guaranteed prices which offered increased subsidies for increased production. So much for M. Sarkozy's claim that he represents "rupture" with an outmoded Chiraquian past. So much for Mr Blair's powers of persuasion.

There are good arguments against the traditional British view that all farm subsidies are wicked. Support for farming on a human scale, and farming which does not pollute the countryside, can be justified.

French politicians, and M. Chirac in particular, have defended the survival of the CAP - sometimes in heated arguments with Mr Blair - along just these lines. We, the French, they say, care about quality food. We care about the beauty of the countryside. We care about the survival of family farms. French farm policy - with a brief honourable exception in the years when Lionel Jospin was prime minister - has done exactly the opposite. It has ensured that the lion's (or pig's) share of EU farm subsidies goes to the vast cereals farms which boost the country's trade balance and contribute generously to the bank balance of centre right political parties.

At the same time, the advance of chemically-assisted monoculture of cereals has spilled out of the north and centre into the west of France. Large parts of La France Profonde have been turned into a polluted, green desert.

Here is the third straw in the wind: An official report on the state of the environment in France was published last week. It confirmed that half of all rivers and streams in France and one third of all underground water reserves are "significantly polluted" by agricultural pesticides.

* The internet is a wonderful thing. The patron of my favourite Paris café decided recently, as a service to tourists, to translate his menu into English. He used a French-English dictionary site on the web.

The waitress, doubtful about the results, offered me a free coffee (€1.20) the other morning to revise his work.

Avocats (avocados) were consistently translated, accurately, as "lawyers ". Thus "lawyer and shrimp cocktails".

"Fillets" were invariably translated, perfectly accurately, as nets, rather than fillets. This gave the hors d'oeuvre Nets of herrings apples to dill. That, at least, is poetic. How many tourists might have been tempted to try an Assiette cochonailles or "plate pigs"?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice