France's farmers cause a stink over fast food

John Lichfield
Tuesday 24 August 1999 23:02

THE PEASANTS are revolting. Heaps of manure pile up outside McDonald's restaurants all over France; stacks of rotting fruit barricades supermarket car-parks. In the Roquefort area of south-west France, the mayor of one village has imposed a 100 per cent local tax on Coca-Cola. A farmers' demonstration - likely to turn violent - is threatened in Paris.

So far, so familiar. France has seen this this kind of politico-rural hooliganism a hundred times. But there is a significant difference this time, a difference which suggests farm politics is moving into a new era, and possibly not just in France.

In the past, the smaller French farmers have taken to the streets as the infantry for the big French farm unions, dominated by the interests of large-scale, industrial farming. The small farmers were long used as cannon-fodder in a series of wars - over EU price support and other subsidies for increased production - fought against their own longer term interests.

This time the smaller farmers are acting alone, defending the interests of traditional, low-intensity methods of food production. They have attracted the support, and in some cases the logistic help, of the French far left and the Greens, a startling development in a country where most farmers, whatever the size of their holding, tended to vote on the right.

The revolt has been presented romantically - even by some of the farmers themselves - as a simple question of the plucky French Davids taking on the mass-producing American Goliaths, a battle between two ways of life and two ways of eating. In truth, the enemy of some of the revolting farmers is just as much France's own great, mass-producing industro-agricultural machine, the second largest exporter of food in the world.

While French farmers are attacking McDonald's as a symbol of la sale bouffe (tasteless, mass-produced food), French chicken and pork producers are accused of feeding sewage sludge to their animals as part of a French supermarket-imposed race to produce meat more rapidly and cheaply.

Small fruit and vegetable growers are protesting about a collapse in prices, caused partly by competition from other EU countries and by the supermarket-encouraged French "ranches", mass-producing fruit and vegetables.

There are two principal targets of the summer protests. The first is the United States (and by proxy Coca-Cola and McDonald's). In July, the US retaliated against an EU ban on American beef, grown with the help of artificial hormones. The US imposed 100 per cent taxes on a range of high-quality European food imports, including Roquefort cheese, Dijon mustard and Italian ham.By choosing to attack such symbols of European food excellence, the US drew commercial blood but made itself an easy target as a promoter of "industrial" rather than "real" food.

Whether or not the use of artificial hormones in meat-production is a hazard to health, as the Europeans claim, there is little doubt about its effect on meat quality and taste. Much of the meat sold in American supermarkets resembles blotting paper injected with red ink.

The second target of this summer's agricultural ire has been the large French supermarket chains, accused of beating down the price paid to small farmers for fruit and vegetables then selling the produce at high prices in the shops.

To try to head off the protests, the French government installed a cumbersome system of double-labelling, showing the price paid to the farmer as well as the price demanded of the consumer.

The system is a shambles. Farmers have taken their own action, dumping rotting fruit in supermarket car parks all over the south or, more intelligently, selling or giving their produce directly to shoppers.

In both cases - the anti-McDonald's offensive and the anti-supermarket offensive - the main player has been a relatively new French farmers' organisation called the Confederation Paysanne.

The confederation broke away from the main French farmers' organisation, the national federation of farm unions (FNSEA) in 1987, complaining that the interests of traditional and small farmers were being trampled by the obsession with increased productivity of the large farmers and the French government.

The new union was deliberately ignored by a succession of French governments. Most farmers - even smaller farmers - continued to obey the production- at-all-costs gospel of the FNSEA and the Ministry of Agriculture. But in the second half of the 1990s, the BSE crisis and the reform of the EU farm policy have given new urgency to the alternative gospel of the Confederation Paysanne.

It believes in subsidies (of course); but it also believes the only way to stop the drift from the land in France is to concentrate on the production of safe, high-quality, high-price food.

In some departements in the south, the confederation claims the allegiance of two-thirds of farmers.

Ironically, the farm protests this summer come when the confederation's message is being taken seriously in Paris at last. The Jospin government recently proposed a kind of "subsidy tax" which would confiscate some EU income from large farmers and redistribute it in direct grants to smaller ones. The big farm battalions of the FNSEA called for nationwide protests but were ignored. The protests have taken another significant form. The BSE crisis and the dioxin-in-chicken scare in Belgium have merged, in the consumer consciousness, with fears about genetically modified crops and the use of antibiotics in animal feed. There is growing concern throughout the world about the hidden price to be paid for cheap, industrially produced food.

Farmers and consumers will always be divided about the price of food but they may, finally, have found some grounds for common cause.

Resistance Leader

THE NEW symbol of farm militancy in France is a Parisian-born, green-tinged leftist and peace activist. Jose Bove, in prison facing charges for his part in the vandalism of a McDonald's under construction, has become a hero to many small French farmers, leading protests against the industrialisation and globalisation of farming. In June he led an attack on a laboratory experimenting with genetically modified rice in Montpellier.

But his militancy is not purely agricultural: he was the only French person on board the Greenpeace flotilla which tried to invade the French nuclear exclusion zone in the Pacific when Paris briefly resumed testing in 1995.

Mr Bove, in his late 40s, is a sheep farmer on the plateau of Larzac in the Massif Central, the site of a large French nuclear missile base. Even his farming is a political statement. He squatted at an abandoned sheep farm in Larzac in 1976 to practise his political philosophy that peace can be achieved only in harmony with nature. He and his wife and two children are part of a sheep-farming co-operative, extending to four other farms.

The new rural hero illustrates the changing attitudes of small French farmers. They have abandoned the production-is-all philosophy of the mainstream French farming unions to draw closer to the anti-industrial, pro-quality and tradition beliefs of the vaguely leftist Confederation Paysanne of which Mr Bove is a founding leader.

When he gave himself up to police last week he said that he would "continue the fight against globalisation and to promote the rights of farmers and the right of people to eat what they want to".

John Lichfield

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