Revolting French farmers

7th October 2003, Comments 0 comments

As a cereal farmer in France with a passion for left-wing politics, Raymond Leduc is more than aware of the contradictions he lives — he actively sustains them.

That's apparent on his property, on which a handsome mansion dating back 370 years sits behind a stone wall, across the road from a shed that boasts some of the most modern tractors and equipment available from the United States, Germany and Sweden.

It's also apparent in the presence of a small room in which he proudly sells bio fruit and vegetables to passing motorists who park in front to the 150 hectares (370 acres) of wheat and rapeseed that exclusively make up the business side of his farm, situated some 35 kilometers south of Paris.

And it's especially apparent in his words, when he expounds at length on the social ills he believes globalisation has wrought not only to France's once-traditional farming culture, but to poorer countries that have become victims of a US-styled "capitalism" in which agro-business is king.

"We're all part of the system," he said, with a resigned air. And then, brightening, he predicted that the system "won't last too long - it will be brought down one way or the other."

Now 57 with grey hair and alert eyes, Leduc has, like his father before him, made a farmer of his 28-year-old son, Jerôme, to whom he has given half the farm. But, he admits, his daily schedule bears little resemblance to the back-breaking labour endured by previous generations.

Together, with just one employee, he and Jerôme work the advanced machinery that automatically sow the seeds, deploy insecticides and fungicides, and do the harvesting.

That technology, and the fact that he, like so many of France's farmers today, has concentrated on just one or two crops has turned him "a little into a businessman," he admitted.

And then there's the subsidies.

Of the EUR 130,000 (USD 115,000) he receives each year, 40 percent come from the EU subsidies designed to regulate and protect farming in Western Europe.

Expenses have to be paid, loans reimbursed and the ancient property looked after, and he and Jerôme draw a salary equivalent to the minimum wage, around EUR 1,000 a month, each.

But with their housing and vehicles considered business capital, a camping ground bringing in extra income, generous tax breaks, and most of their food coming from their vegetable plot or from neighbours, there's no denying that Leduc's family lead a comfortable life.

They also have the time to enjoy it. "We aren't full-time workers. The seasonal nature of the work means we don't work for five months of the year," Leduc said.

The relative luxury of it all compared to Asian and African farmers isn't lost on him, though.

Although most French farmers tend to vote to the right - a result of their conservative character that explains President Jacques Chirac's strong support in rural areas - Leduc himself sits to the left, and is a member of the national executive of the minority Farmers' Confederation union led by France's famous anti-globalisation activist José Bové.

He rejoiced in the collapse of the World Trade Organisation talks in Cancun in September, although for different reasons to many of his conservative neighbours.

Far from seeing the talks' failure as shoring up EU farming subsidies, he sees it as the first step to tearing them down and replacing them with a system that might stop the soil being turned into "merchandise".

"The capitalists have their weaknesses, too," he said. "The people can win, and for the people to be courageous, they have to be oppressed."

The emergence of developing nations pushing for an end to EU and US subsidies means the topic is finally up for debate, and the West's farmers might one day rediscover the direct link between their labour and their livelihood, he said.

"I'm in favour of getting rid of all the subsidies, except for small farmers in out-of-the-way areas like in the mountains," he said.

As for the WTO, "that has to exist, but it has to know how to manage things in the interests of the people. We need another WTO."

Without a vision of trade that takes into account the social dimension, he argued, rich countries will begin to feel the consequences of crushing the agricultural sectors in developing nations.

"The north (northern hemisphere) is destroying the south. We shouldn't be surprised if the people from the south one day decide to come to our countries asking for work."

October 2003



Subject: Life in France

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