John Lichfield: France’s myth of the cheesemaking peasant

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There is a traditional postcard image of French farming, fostered by successive governments. Small villages of warm stone nestle on hillsides, surrounded by beef cattle reared mostly on grass. Dairy cows, goats and sheep produce luscious raw-milk cheeses.

This is the type of French farming which is defended by Paris in its marathon trade row with Washington, which has seen EU barriers to hormone-soaked American beef and US barriers to traditional Roquefort sheep cheeses.

Such human-sized French farms do exist – just. But they are not the real powerhouse of French agriculture and they are not the type of farming which has been encouraged by Paris in the 46 years since the CAP was created.

Drive out of Paris for 100 miles or more in almost any direction and you enter a green desert, punctuated by towns and scarred by motorways. Hedges and animals have ceased to exist. The Ile de France, the flatter parts of the Loire country, much of northern and eastern France and parts of Normandy and Brittany have been turned into a vast, chemical-soaked plain for the high-intensity production of cereals. The fields on these farms stretch to the horizon. They are larger, in many cases, than those on similar farms in Kansas or Nebraska.

As a result, France has become the second biggest agricultural exporter in the world. As a result, French rivers and streams are among the most polluted in Europe. As a result, the average size of French farms has soared in the past 30 years and the number of holdings has plummeted from 2.4 million in the mid 1960s to just over 600,000 today.

So much for “defending the traditional French farming model” – the argument tripped out by French politicians for decades to justify the billions of euros spent on the CAP. President Sarkozy, if he changes nothing else, will at least have punctured one of the greatest, and least challenged, lies of French public life.