The Angry French Farmer, a National Legacy

Protesting may well be France’s national sport. And of the many groups who excel (daily) in this endeavor, French farmers may just be the best.

Over the past few days, French farmers have taken to dumping tons of produce and piles of manure outside of government buildings and in public squares in protest of the Russian embargo on Western imports and economic downturn in the agricultural sector as a whole. This kind of agricultural protest is not new; the French Revolution itself was fueled by farmers fed up with high taxes and terrible living conditions. In fact, the French farmer protest seems to be a relative constant throughout history, which is not surprising considering the precedent set by the French Revolution. When peasants gained suffrage and land rights, they suddenly made up 75% of the political public, a majority that would set French farming atop the political agenda.

A history of protest - bread symbolizes peasant rights as they fight on the steps of Parliament

A history of protest – bread symbolizes peasant rights as they fight on the steps of Parliament

Today, French farmer protest has intensified and diversified. The dominance of the international import/export business, economic and technological restructuring of the agricultural industry worldwide, the global recession, in tandem with France’s well-documented disdain for globalization (or even more bluntly, American imperialism) all give French farmers more reason than ever to raise their pitchforks and mindlessly destroy their own agricultural products. So how is contemporary protest any different than revolutionary cries for lower taxes, better pay, and more rights in the late eighteenth century? The simple answer is globalization. Increased foreign competition, an influx of controversial industrial agricultural techniques, and the emergence of the supermarket have all contributed to a permanently altered global agricultural system. But are these farmers really dumping piles of manure outside their own government buildings in an attempt to salvage the French traditional provincial farm life? Or are there deeper implications that point to political and economic tensions and interests?

Activist (and sheep farmer) José Bové

Activist (and sheep farmer) José Bové

For many, activist-cum-sheep farmer José Bové’s 1999 dismantling of a Millau McDonald’s represents the symbolic tide of change in French farmer protest. But anti-globalization (and more specifically, anti-Americanization) protests appeared much earlier – in 1967, a group of French farmers drove their tractors around the Champs Elysées for hours in a traffic-disrupting protest against Charles de Gaulle’s revised farm policy, which (they claimed) favored cheap American pork imports over domestic product. As early as 1998, concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms were widespread in the French agricultural community: a group of activists caused $1 million in damages destroying a field of genetically modified crops in France. So it seems that the French disdain for globalization has expressed itself most clearly (and obnoxiously) through the loud voices of farmers, seemingly in an attempt to preserve the French farming tradition and protect it from outside influences that would not only reduce quality, but favor industrial corporate-owned farms over artisanal, traditional family-owned ones.

A closer look at French farmer protests in recent years sheds some light on the true motivations driving producers to herd sheep through the Louvre and smash eggs with reckless abandon. While the overall rallying cry of French farmers is a preservation of a French national tradition defined in the very identity of France since revolutionary times, today’s world is not so simple. Increased foreign competition on the global market has driven France’s agricultural landscape to more closely resemble that of their frienemy, the U.S. This means fewer, larger farms favoring industrial techniques, and a general economic downturn for those who maintain smaller family farms. But out of an approximate 800,000 French farmers, only around 15,000 of those belong to the Confederation Paysanne, a political coalition for small farmers in France. While this number may represent a portion of the news-worthy protests in recent years, their numbers are not nearly large enough to draw such continued media attention to French farmer protest. This invites the conclusion that the larger-scale, industrial farms are involved in the protest legacy as well – and this is backed up by evidence.

Dairy Farmers Protest

Dairy Farmers Protest

 

In August 2013, farmers began to smash 100,000 eggs a day in an attempt to decrease supply and drive prices up in response to new regulations that designated better living conditions for hens. This doesn’t sound like the kind of activism José Bové engaged in; his stance focused largely around the rejection of industrial farming techniques on the basis of health threats from low-quality American imports and preservation of French cultural identity. These farmers were unhappy with new regulations that required them to resize hen coops for the increased comfort and health of the animals solely from an economic standpoint. For them, it was all about the bottom line. In November 2013, farmers set up road blocks in and out of Paris that resulted in death and injury of several motorists in a protest against a new eco-tax that favored environmental reform and conservation. Directly counter to José Bové’s brand of activism, again these farmers were looking out for economic interests rather than environmental preservation. So is it really culture and fear of American soft power that drives the French to protest, or is it more likely a fear of the American dollar? Examined through this lens, the historic 1967 protest, 1998 GMO destruction, and 1999 McDonald’s construction may point to deeper economic concerns: keeping control of domestic markets away from American companies, avoiding dominance by American seed companies, and protecting the domestic beef market, respectively. And José Bové himself isn’t just a lowly sheep farmer activist, but a highly educated political public figure who ran for president in 2007 and has made something of a career out of protesting.

These farmers are struggling to hold on to professions that have been a part of the French national identity for centuries.

Ultimately, with the various economic shifts globalization has introduced to France, farmers are losing out. The government and the agricultural community are struggling to preserve an identity and adapt to technological and economic changes that could mean great success, but at the cost of some very valuable French traditions. A balance has not been struck, and as a result French farmers are experiencing a profound economic struggle. Their focus may not be on the purity of traditional French farming, as such an ideal is beginning to look increasingly unfeasible in today’s global economy, but on the actual identity of being a farmer, and a successful one at that. These farmers are struggling to hold on to professions that have been a part of the French national identity for centuries; their success in doing so will depend on a cooperative effort by unions, French government, and farmers alike in order to find a balance between globalization and French nationalism. This may mean industrial farming; it may mean higher-yield crops; it may mean a reduction in traditional smaller French farms, all in an attempt to keep France’s agricultural sector successful so it can continue to preserve at least some of these prized traditions.

French farm house

Marie Antoinette’s “farm house” building at Versaille – a French ideal since the eighteenth century

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