Date: Sun, 10 Oct 1999 23:06:07 -0500 (CDT)
From: Robert Kemp <>
Subject: French small farmers head for extinction
Article: 79169
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French small farmers head for extinction

By John Lichfield, The Independent (UK), [10 October 1999]

WHEN YOU leave the city of Paris you enter, metaphorically, the state of New Jersey: concentric circles of tower blocks, motorways, shopping malls, bungalows and Midas car-repair franchises. Once you escape from New Jersey-sur-Seine, going in any direction, you enter Nebraska or Kansas, an 80 to 100 miles belt of immense wheat and barley fields, grain silos, fertiliser-polluted streams and dying, or suburbanised, villages.

It is only when you have passed through this vast, mournful, agri-industrial plain—which produces almost as much wheat as the whole of Canada—that you reach la France profonde: the quilt of small farms, natural woodlands, close-knit villages and picturesque towns that many French people still believe to be rural France.

Out there, beyond the French Nebraska, a more traditional, less polluting kind of agriculture still exists, but it is struggling for survival. In many places—in Brittany, in parts of Normandy, in the beautiful region called Berry, within the huge bend of the Loire—agri-industry also rules. The intensive pig farms of Brittany, which resemble small chemicals factories, generate so much pork that French and European market prices are constantly on the verge of collapse. They produce so much pig effluent that one third of the water-courses in Brittany are poisonous to drink.

France finds itself waging agricultural/consumer wars on two fronts this autumn. It is fighting alongside its EU partners to resist artificial-hormone-reared beef from the US. It is also fighting against most of its EU partners—and especially Britain—to delay the lifting of the BSE-inspired ban on British beef.

In both cases, the French government, some French farmers and, up to a point, the French press have presented the issues as a straight fight between, on the one hand, traditional farming values and new BSE-awakened consumer anxieties, and, on the other hand, more intensive, more industrial, high-productivity-driven forms of agriculture. It has been presented as a battle between the French creation and appreciation of real food, and la male bouffe or la sale bouffe (filthy, dangerous, foreign-produced food).

These concerns should not be dismissed. Many people in Britain share the French consumer and farmer anxieties about food quality and safety, BSE, artificial hormones and genetically modified crops. However, the debate in France has been muddled by the country's reluctance, with some noble exceptions, to face up to an awkward fact.

France is not—or not just—a country of 600 different kinds of cheese. It is an agri-industrial superpower, the second largest food exporter in the world (after the US), a country which produces almost as much wheat (37 million tonnes) as Canada and Australia put together. It is also a mass producer of chickens and pork by methods almost as doubtful as those which caused the BSE crisis. The EU is investigating the illegal use of treated effluent in French chicken and pig feed. Although this is not human sewage, it is the liquefied by- product from slaughterhouses.

France is not just fighting external farm wars on two fronts; it is also facing a long-brewing battle between the agri-industrial interests which control 80 per cent of French food output, and the smaller, traditional producers who own or manage two thirds of French farms.

For 30 years successive French governments have paid lip-service to the France of small farmers while supporting policies in Paris and Brussels which have marginalised them in favour of large farms, high productivity and mass exports. The smaller farmers were the willing street-fighting infantry of the large farm union federation, the FNSEA, even though the FNSEA—dominated by the big cereals producers - pursued the same high-output, export-driven, subsidy- hogging gospel that was shooting the infantry in the back. In 1982 there were 1.5 million farms in France; now there are 700,000, and falling.

In the last couple of years, two things have changed. The socialist-communist- green coalition of Lionel Jospin has abruptly switched furrows in farm policy. To the fury of the big farmers, it has introduced a subsidy tax which confiscates part of the cash they receive from Brussels and redistributes it to small farmers.

Secondly, the latter have been leaving the federation in droves and joining a new, populist, left-leaning, small farmers' organisation, the Confederation Paysanne.

One of the founders of this new group, Jose Bove, an urban former peace and green activist turned sheep farmer, became a French hero in the summer when he was jailed for vandalising a half-built branch of McDonalds. The reason? The farmers were attacking McDonalds as a symbol of the iniquities of globalism, because the US was taxing imports of Roquefort cheese and Dijon mustard in retaliation for the EU ban on American hormone-treated beef.

In short, French farm and rural politics are in violent ferment. The Jospin government has called an agricultural round-table in 10 days' time to try to agree coherent goals for French farm policy. The problem is how to satisfy the diverging demands of the big, export-conscious farmers and the small, free trade-blaming farmers before the world trade round in Seattle later this year. How can you be against free trade when you are the world's second biggest exporter of food?

Into this boiling pot tumbled the unexpected decision of French veterinary and health experts to recommend a continuing ban on British beef. Most beef farmers in France run small operations, and enthusiastically supported the extended beef embargo.

This was not exactly for protectionist reasons, as British farmers claim. The tiny amount of UK beef likely to enter France offers no real commercial threat. But French farmers remember that their own beef sales collapsed by 50 per cent during the BSE crisis three years ago. In the present, exaggerated psychosis about la sale bouffe—a psychosis partly of the farmers' own making—renewed British beef sales might turn French consumers off beef of any kind.

The French government is doubly stuck. It needs the goodwill and co-operation of both Brussels and Britain to pursue its interests in the Seattle talks—if French farmers, large and small, can agree what those interests are. On the other hand, Paris risks stirring up both the newly-militant small farmers and consumers if it lifts the beef ban.