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"?

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