Travelling with the Cadogan Guide is like being in the best sort of company.

The Sunday Times

Big Mac Attack – an excerpt from France

José Bove and his nine co-defendants absolutely denied that they ‘wrecked’ that McDonald’s in Millau, in the Aveyron, back in August 1999. Rather, they called it ‘a festive dismantling with collateral damage’. Whatever that means, they did a pretty thorough job of it, over $100,000 worth of damage and entirely without the use of any such potential pollutants as dynamite or nitroglycerin. The leader of Confédération Paysanne and his followers were out to make a point, and no one doubts they succeeded. Now everybody in France knows who they are, and 20,000 people came out to show their support when Mr Bove went on trial.

Though festively dismantling a McDonald’s might seem like good clean family fun, opinions in the Anglophone world found the whole exercise a bit immature. The French, it was often claimed, just couldn’t understand ‘globalization’, and it was all a matter of some grumpy peasants venting some steam at a common symbol of American hegemony. Thanks to the congenital laziness of most of the media, though (especially television), most Americans in particular never got to hear the real story. It’s about cows, all right, but not about the indisputably Gallic ones that get turned into McDo’s burgers here. The cows in question are American, nice fat ones pumped full of growth hormones. France, and Europe, won’t let them into their markets. They believe in the precautionary principle – that more should be known about the health effects of artificially juiced-up food before they are put on sale. America says rather, you’ve got to eat our beef whether you like it or not, and it’s none of your business what we put in it. That’s what free markets are all about.

The US has invented a nice new shiny World Trade Organization, where it can sue countries that let health, environmental or social concerns get in its way. But in the meantime, while the issue of hormone-laced cows is being fought out there, Washington has used its favourite tactic of ‘revolving sanctions’ against France, cleverly designed to annoy as many Frenchmen as possible. For a year it might be 100 per cent tariffs on champagne, and then on perfume, or perhaps Roquefort cheese. That, in fact is what it was. Mr Bove’s sheep happen to be signed up with the Société Roquefort, and he has been getting screwed by Uncle Sam over a quarrel that has nothing to do with him.

French politicians do not like to argue with Mr Bove, or with any farmer. This is after all the country where every new president traditionally forgives all outstanding traffic fines on his first day in office, a country where the art of governance has become almost all carrot and no stick. Like the truckers who can now shut down France any time they feel like when fuel prices go up, and the trade unions that stop the railroads every now and then just to remind the government that they can do it, France’s farmers are politically unassailable. They can close borders, tie up roads, or trash warehouses full of imported wine while the gendarmes stand and watch. Local officials are always in their corner; farmers do vote, and besides, no mayor really needs ten tons of manure dumped on the steps of his mairie.

For decades now, France’s farmers have had the temerity to demand that they be allowed to make a good living in the old-fashioned way, in the face of all the trends, and defying all the economists’ prattle about markets and the inevitability of more efficient means of production. While fighting for their livelihoods, they have also been fighting to keep their communities alive – as when the government tries to close village schools or cut transport services. In trying to preserve a way of life, they have suffered a good deal of condecension from the economic planners, but things are changing fast. In a time when issues of food seem to crystallize the big issues, the farmers of Confédération Paysanne suddenly look very much like the cutting edge. They have made the connection between healthy food, a healthy environment, and healthy communities. Europe’s ‘mad cow’ crisis, very much in the public eye, is their Exhibit A. France’s record of protecting consumers, like that of most European countries, is hardly more virtuous that America’s; fate just led the two systems to foul up in different ways. The framers point out that whenever agriculture is corporatized and industrialized, this is what happens: chemical, potentially fatal food, a poisoned environment, and dying villages. Now they have a philosophy, and they know who the enemy is. France and the rest of the world will be hearing from them again.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls