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14/06/01 . Michael McCarthy . The Independent . UK
The little man from the Massif Central brings his battle to Britain
(June 14 2001)
Late last night, as far as one could tell, all the branches of McDonald's in London were still intact, and José Bové had been in the capital for more than 24 hours.
Maybe we should double-check today, just to be sure, but the radical French farmer and campaigner against globalisation, who rose to world fame by trashing one of the ubiquitous hamburger joints two years ago, has more ways of making an impact than by swinging a sledgehammer. He started off a day in Britain yesterday by laying straight into British agricultural policy, proclaiming the industrialisation of farming produced by free-market economics had been directly responsible for the outbreaks of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease.
"Absolute rubbish," riposted Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, in a testy two-way BBC Radio 4 exchange that ended with Mr Bové lumping the NFU with the Government as the villain of the piece. It was riveting radio but you only got half the value of José. You have to see the guy.
Just as appearance did for William Hague, there is no doubt the huge moustaches that droop from the Bové upper lip, not to mention the magnificent pipe that hangs down between them, big as a sock, have helped to glorify the legend of the little man from the Massif Central who is taking on the transnational corporation. He seems the perfectly designed French peasant farmer, like something out of Balzac or Clochemerle: his entire aspect proclaims Sturdy Son of the Soil.
Appearances are deceptive. This is a sophisticated political radical in the great French tradition, the son of left-wing university lecturers who, just too young to be a protesting student in the revolt of May 1968, brought his school out on strike and then engaged in a long career of radical activism. He is a genuine farmer now, producing ewe's milk cheese, pork and veal from his land near Millau in the Aveyron, the most remote of the French départments, but his decision to take up farming was a political act.
The fortuitous combination of appearance and reality have made him the most visible of all the growing band of campaigners against the takeover of the world economy by huge multinational companies, and his voice is being increasingly heard. He was in London for the launch of the English edition of his polemic against international industrialised agribusiness, entitled The World Is Not For Sale. More than 700 people attended the launch party on Tuesday night.
Yesterday he joined a lobby of Tony Blair and the new Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, calling for Britain's small and family farmers to be given priority in the post-foot-and-mouth restructuring of British agriculture that the Government has promised. He didn't get to see either, being kept at the gates of Downing Street, and meeting only Lord Whitty, a junior minister in the new department.
Mr Bové didn't mind: he energetically proclaimed his vision for more than an hour at a press conference in his punchy if rusty English (the legacy of his parents' tenure at the University of California when he was a child). The essence is simple: in agriculture, small and local are good, normal and natural, while giant and international the way the world is increasingly going are ruinous. He hit straight out, and hard, at British agricultural policy.
"The model you have here for agriculture is the destruction of the small farm," he said, between puffs of his pipe. "In 1992 when they decided to change the European policy for agriculture, we were 11 million farmers all over Europe; now we are only seven million, and in '92 they said this policy was going on until we should be only five million. They want to go on with the destruction of family farms."
Most analysts of British agricultural policy would say that was quite accurate. But this was no way forward, he said, for farming, for consumers or the environment. Large-scale industrialised agriculture was responsible for the disease outbreaks of the past 10 years and he prophesied the next crisis would be over the large-scale use of antibiotics on animals.
With its exports of cheap produce, agribusiness was also helping drive farmers to the wall in poorer countries all around the world, he said. "In the European Union we are exporting milk to India. India is the biggest milk-producing country in the world, and we are exporting this milk at a lower price than it can be produced in India, so we are dumping on Indian farmers. This is incredible. We are killing everything with our export subsidies. We have to destroy export subsidies."
What had to happen, he said, was that food production be taken out of the control of the World Trade Organisation. "We want food sovereignty for everywhere in the world, not only for Europe, but also for Africa, Asia, South American and everywhere else. People should be able to eat food produced by their own agriculture. Eighty per cent of food exports in the world come from the US and Europe, so it is we who are destroying other farmers in the world." Each region of the world should have tariffs to protect its agriculture, he said a thought that would give the WTO apoplexy.
He believes fiercely that the march of globalisation is not unstoppable. The economic bottom line does not necessarily govern all, he says: people will be prepared to pay more for food produced with less harmful results, people can change in what they want, and he gives an example that could only come from France.
"Things have changed with veal. Before, people when buying veal they wanted white veal, the meat should be white. This is crazy. When veal meat is white, it means the animals see no light, they're not outside. But in France, since 10 years, people, they want pink meat. That means the animal has been outside. So you can change habits if people are understanding what's happening with agriculture."
He is quite unperturbed about the three-month prison sentence hanging over
him from the attack he and colleagues launched on the half-built McDonald's
site in Millau two years ago. He has just lost one appeal; the final one,
France's highest court, will probably be heard early next year and, if he
loses, he's in the slammer. "Well, it's not a problem for me," he says. "I
already went there. But if I have to go again it's going to be a big mess."
A deep revolutionary chuckle comes from under the magnificent moustaches.
"It's going to be a decision for the French government. They're gonna have
problems, not me."