'Ave a Go 'Ero
An interview with French farming rebel José
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
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
'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
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
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
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,
Hardly a sea change, but perhaps José Bové
would agree that it is at least a drop in the ocean.