‘Ave a go ‘ero

Interviews Published July 26, 2001 in Published in The Ecologist, July 2001

The date 12th August 1999 was to be a crucial one for José Bové, and a significant day for France. It may well turn out to have a resonance for the wider world, too.

That day, in the town of Millau, in the heart of the Languedoc region in the south of the country, a swarm of peasant farmers descended onto a building site in the centre of the town and began to systematically destroy the McDonald’s outlet being constructed there — the first of the American burger chain’s forays into the region. According to a primly outraged spokesman for the fast-food behemoth, $120,000 worth of damage was done that day by Bové and his fellow members of the Confederation Paysanne, or Union of Peasant Farmers, before they were stopped by the police. Four people, including Bové himself, were arrested.

That was when things began to get interesting.

Bové, 47, who has farmed sheep in the Larzac region of Languedoc for 25 years, and is co-founder of the Confederation Paysanne (CP) which represents small farmers and their struggle against industrial agriculture, was convicted in court five days later of criminal damage. The judge sent him to prison. The severity of his sentencing surprised many people, including Bové himself, and created, overnight, a martyr and media celebrity.

Every newspaper and TV station in France flocked to Bové like cows to a salt lick, and this wiry, amiable farmer, with his Asterix moustache and defiant smile, became a national hero. He compounded his martyr status some days later when he refused to be released from jail on principle, despite the fact that the money to bail him out had been raised by supportive organisations and public donations. Newspapers hailed him as a hero. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called him ‘a strong, vigorous personality’. The popular media represented him as the last man in France willing to go to jail for the founding ideals of the Republic.

In fact, José Bové went to jail for the right to make cheese.

It may see strange that a vandal should be so lionised – compare Bové’s treatment to the hostile British reaction to the violent trashing of a McDonald’s on Mayday. But consider the wider context. For Bové’s stand against Ronald McDonald and friends was, as he tells it, a stand for the small farmers of France, for traditional methods of food production, for the right to be free from corporate hegemony, and for that most French of all causes — gastronomy.

‘We did this because of American tariffs and because of the WTO,’ he says now. ’McDonald’s was a good symbol. All over the world it highlights the conflict between two ways of farming and eating — real food and real farmers set against industrial agriculture and corporate control. That’s what our action was about.’

To understand all this, take yourself back a year to the time when the European Union and the USA were slugging it out across the Atlantic on the subject of beef. The EU was worried about the growth hormones which American farmers were injecting their cattle with — several studies indicated possible health risks to those who ate the beef, including an increased chance of some cancers. As a precaution, the EU banned imports of hormone-injected beef from the States.

Outraged, the American Government took its grievance to the office of the global headmaster, the World Trade Organisation. The WTO ordered the EU to lift the ban. Europe remained resolute. So the US, in retaliation and with the WTO’s blessing, imposed a series of 100 per cent import tariffs on $116m worth of European products.

The effect of this was that the prices of various products from several European countries doubled overnight. The tariffs hit products as diverse as tomatoes, glue, onions, truffles, chocolate, mustard and animal offal. They also hit Roquefort cheese.

The French, as any fool knows, are fiercely proud of their food. And José Bové is fiercely proud of his Roquefort. More than that, it is his living. On his farm, at the edge of the Massif Central in Larzac, he breeds sheep, which he milks in the traditional way, using the milk to make the Roquefort cheese in which the region specialises. When the WTO and the US Government began their tariff war against the EU, Bové was one of the first casualties.

So this, then, is just the story of a disgruntled farmer? An unhappy French peasant, angry that his subsidised lifestyle was under threat, launching a last-ditch defence of his vested interests by kicking in the windows of the first American restaurant he came across? Not quite.

‘This situation amazed us,’ he says, of the WTO’s tariff decision. ‘How can the WTO, or any other government, tell us that we must eat hormone-treated beef? And how can they threaten us and ruin our food production if we do not?’ It is, he says, a failure of democracy.

‘When we heard of this, our union, the CP, went to talk to the French Government. They said there was nothing they could do. So we talked to Brussels. They said there was nothing they could do. They all told us that they were powerless — our own governments, telling us they were powerless to do anything about what happens to our produce. So we decided to take a stand.’

As Bové tells it, then, his attack on McDonald’s, as well as being a hugely effective publicity stunt for his union and for his cause, was not a twinge of privileged protectionist fury (as his enemies, particularly in the PR departments of food multinationals, like to make out), but a stand against corporate domination of food, and against the global trading regime. ‘There have been three totalitarian forces in our lifetime,’ he told a reporter last year. ‘The totalitarianism of fascism, of communism, and now of capitalism.’

José Bové is no stranger to making a stand. When he raised his fist in defiance for the cameras on the courthouse steps last year, it was far from being the first time that he had pitched himself against much larger forces for the sake of principle.

Bové first came to Larzac in the early 1970s. When he arrived, the region was in turmoil. ‘There was a big fight going on,’ he recalls. ‘The army and the government wanted to build a huge military base in the region. It would have militarised a lot of land. They wanted to take over 100 farms. I got involved as a conscientious objector, someone who was part of the peace movement. It took us 10 years, but we won. They never built the base.’

His introduction to farming in the region came almost by chance. ‘One of the farms we were fighting for was empty,’ he says, ‘and the other farmers in the region offered it to me. I squatted it in 1975, and I have never left. Now it is mine, and I farm my sheep here. Now it is my living.’

The objector in Bové was not subdued by the rural life, however. In the 1980s, Bové, along with other peasant farmers from the region, began to speak out and campaign against the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, and the increasing domination of agriculture by corporations and industrial-scale factory farms. They were joined in their concerns by farmers from all over France, and in 1987 they founded the Confederation Paysanne, to represent the interests of the small traditional farmers who, he says, were not represented by the Government or by the existing agricultural unions. Bové was one of the CP’s first national secretaries.

In 1987, the CP had about 10,000 members. Now, partly thanks, no doubt, to Bové’s national fame, they have 40,000, and numbers are growing fast. The CP is becoming a force to be reckoned with on the national stage. But they will need a lot of luck, support and hard work if they are to achieve what Bové says are the CP’s objectives.

‘We want a serious change in agricultural policy,’ he says, simply. ’Yes, we want to protect small farms, but we also want to rejuvenate agriculture, and attract new people into farming. We also want to ensure that agriculture and environment work in harmony. Finally, we want Europe to concentrate on small farming, peasant farming, feeding its people, rather than on destructive, industrial agriculture. We want to modify the Common Agricultural Policy and the WTO to achieve these aims.

Bové, then, is not short of ambition. And he has been called a hopeless idealist by more than one commentator. More seriously, he has been accused, usually by those who believe that ‘global free trade’ will make the world’s people better off, of seeking to protect his interests, and those of his fellow farmers, at the expense of the poor. The ‘Third World’, runs the argument, needs both European markets and European exports. Does M Bové seek to deny them the wealth that Europeans already enjoy?

‘That is no argument,’ he says. ‘At present we have food subsidies unconnected to food production, we have food mountains and destructive industrial agriculture. And we see rich nations dumping their products on the Third World, destroying the livelihoods of small farmers there just as here in France. Global trade in agriculture is not a free market, and it does not benefit farmers or the poor.’

Moreover, he says, the charge that the CP is a protectionist lobby group is dealt a blow by the fact that it is working in alliance with other small farmers’ unions from all over the world — including many from the Third World. The CP is part of an international umbrella organisation of over 80 unions from the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia. ‘All of us are promoting the same thing,’ says Bové. ‘We are all small farmers against globalisation and the corporate destruction of farming. We all believe that our countries should be able to feed their own people in their own way. This does not mean no trade, but it means countries should be able to protect their own ways of farming and eating. That is a global principle.’

The rise of José Bové to national fame in France, his general lionisation by the media and the public, and his actions and successes since he was first arrested last August would make a great Hollywood script. Whether it would have a happy ending remains to be seen, but the scale of his achievements since last summer testify to the power of public opinion, and the effectiveness of Bové and the CP’s campaigning.

For Bové has put peasant agriculture firmly back on the political map in France, and it shows no signs of going away. More than that, though, the CP’s fight has gone global. Bové was at Seattle last November — one eyewitness described the media scrum around him on the plane and in the streets as ‘Bovémania’. He attended the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later in the year, and was in the front line of protesters when the police attacked with rubber bullets and pepper spray — fast becoming the weapons of choice for the defenders of the world economic order.

Back in France, politicians wanted a slice of Bovémania for themselves. President Jacques Chirac made a point of shaking Bové’s hand at a rally in February. And in March this year, Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, invited Bové and other representatives of the Confederation Paysanne to a private meeting to discuss their views on agriculture, food, trade and the WTO. ‘He wanted to know what we thought,’ says Bové. ‘He made no promises, but he listened. We will see.’

For now, José Bové is waiting. He is waiting for 1 July, when France takes over the Presidency of the EU. ‘Then we will see what Jospin can do for peasant farmers,’ he says. He is waiting, too, for September, when Europe’s farm ministers will meet at the Agriculture Summit in Biarritz. Expect Bové to be there, making his case as firmly as ever. Expect some more stunts, too.

Abové all, José Bové is waiting for things to change. He is waiting for people to wake up to what is happening to their farms and their food, and to how world trade is run, and who the beneficiaries are. He is confident, though, that this will happen — and that things will change.

‘Look,’ he says, ‘cooking is culture. All over the world. Every nation, every region, has its own food cultures. Food and farming define people. We cannot let it all go, to be replaced with hamburgers. People will not let it happen.’

Incidentally, Bové insists that he actually likes hamburgers – though not the McDonald’s variety. Made on a grill, though, with sliced tomatoes and mushrooms from his garden, he enjoys them. His argument is not with American food, or the American people, he says. It is with the corporations and economic structures that are destroying what he calls ‘real food and real farming’.

And McDonald’s? Their reaction to being the focus of the wrath of France’s modern-day peasant hero? In a word: pragmatic. Responding to the wave of media and public support for Bové and the peasant farmers, the Agen branch of the fast-food chain, in south western France, served up a placatory spread of ‘McDuck’ and ‘Roquefort-burgers’, made with local produce, to customers last September. ‘We decided it would be nicer to do that than have them (Bové and friends) dump three tonnes of manure in the restaurant,’ said the manager, simply.

Hardly a sea change, but perhaps José Bové would agree that it is at least a drop in the ocean.

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