France’s Forgotten Farmers

BY ROCHELLE BLAKEMAN

I always thought the French cared about their farmers more than the British. Much like in Italy, French culture holds food as sacrosanct. We Brits drench everything in lard and grease apparently, much to the dismay of some of my international friends – especially up North. We’re much more likely to eat casually whilst watching Coronation Street whilst our European cousins (especially Gallic and Southern) make a point of le dîner as a time to savour the meal, talk and enjoy wine sensibly. Of course, this is not absolute and there are likely to be generational and class differences, but food rituals are still greatly intertwined with national characteristics.

Despite the everlasting rivalry between les frogs et les rosbifs, British farmers often remark at their French counterparts’ greater willingness to protest, and to do so with attitude. From an outsider’s perspective, it appears as though French farmers, to borrow a self-help phrase, ‘know their worth’. In 2009 French farmers set fire to hay bales on the Champs-Élysées. They have brought tractors to block main roads and dig up the gardens outside of the French parliament and released sheep in the streets to cause havoc. It is difficult to find equivalent gusto in British farmer protests.

One cannot escape a quintessential politeness and that’ll-do-ism about them. Any flames of fury at the 2014 protest at the Dairy Crest plant in Derbyshire were extinguished with patronising panache:

“While we fully understand the frustration of farmers, we strongly believe that disruptive protests are in no-one’s interests and do not help the development of a profitable dairy industry based on collaboration throughout the supply chain” a spokeswoman said.

It is hard to imagine the French taking this insult on the chin. Even more difficult to imagine would be our British equivalent of the French farmers union organising and endorsing such protests, as opposed to mastering social media campaigns, adopting ‘eco-warrior’ rhetoric and devising cosy graduate schemes.

However, France’s greater love of shock factor protests belie the fact that French farmers meet as much indifference as they would anywhere in the world.

The French fighting instinct is not exclusive to farmers. As Ed West explains, a combination of France’s Revolution and warring Medieval history, compounded by its size and the associated difficulty of controlling people across vast space, have contributed to the nation’s greater normalisation of using force to stand up for their rights. It is a mistake, therefore, to think that the regularity of farmer protests in France illustrates a greater acceptance of farming – the French are simply much more likely to highlight their problems dramatically than the English are.

Speaking to a British expat farming in the South of France revealed that, despite the continent’s claims to be devout foodies, many politicians and law makers have a serious problem when it comes to treating farmers with dignity and respect. Fundamentally, the European Common Agricultural Policy favours large scale farms. Small farmers, meanwhile, are left to struggle. This is in tandem with recent astronomical pushes to penalise farmers who do not farm in the most ‘environmentally friendly’ of ways possible – yet, anyone can see that large-scale industrial farms probably produce more emissions and farm more intensively than the average family farm.

Ironic, right?

Much like in Britain, farmers are drowned in bureaucracy and paperwork. The number of working farms currently decreases by a rate of 1500 per year and it is estimated that every day in France two farmers take their own lives; 20 percent higher than the national average. It is no wonder, therefore, that French farmers see their future dying, in a country that is supposed to be proud of its culinary supremacy and breath-taking countryside alike.

The story is similar across Europe. In 2019, German farmers brought tractors to Berlin. “We are here because we have had enough” one said. Once again, the increasing cost of the ideological “hands off nature” approach to the environment reared its ugly head: “All those who want protection for the climate, the environment and water put all this burden on farmers and we cannot carry it alone.” At around the same time, Irish farmers expressed the same sentiment on the streets of Dublin.

But even before the CAP environmental reforms, European farmers have cracked under immense pressure. Cheap imported food, masquerading as local, has put farmers on an unequal footing with lower standards in France and Italy alike. Throughout the 2010s, the price which dairy farmers were paid for milk was slashed below the cost of production. However, supermarkets and dairy processors, such as Muller, were still profiting from sales. Simply put, farmers were being dealt a criminally unfair share of the profit margin.

The story is groundhog-day for farmers across Europe. In 2015, Belgium’s farmers protested by spraying the European Parliament with gallons of milk. In 2019 still the message fell on deaf ears; sheep farmers in Sardinia spilt their sheep milk on roads when the price they were paid per litre was cut to a meagre €0.60. Haphazardly chucking it away is meant to symbolise the sheer pointlessness of producing a nutritious drink when farmers are knowingly paid a price which makes profiting – or breaking-even – impossible.

You would think, in an era of emphasis on ‘equality’, that journalists would flock like sheep, if you will, to such a cause, heaping on the pressure to make supermarkets and politicians at least cautious about treating farmers like an inconvenient nuisance. Curiously, the exact opposite appears to be the case. Policy makers approach those in the agricultural sector not only with cold indifference, but as an easy target to batter with ever increasing rules, regulations and cuts to income.

France’s pattern of protests captures this perfectly. In 2019 farmers protested the increasing encroachment of government policy on their ability to make a living and in 2020 there were protests over the closure of France’s annual Agricultural Fair due to Covid-19 restrictions. Notably, the tone of these protests was not purely on specific issues or legislation, but on calls simply to be treated with dignity, recognition and respect. French farmers decried what has been termed ‘agri-bashing’. “We have come to demand a little bit of respectone remarked. “We’ve rarely seen a profession be so discredited. For the past year or two, everything we do has been criticised. In the end, we’re trying to do our best with the resources we’re given”. At the protesting of the closure of the Agricultural Fair, another brought light to the sharp decline of farm holdings across the land and, harrowingly, the blight of farm suicides. Protestors hung mannequins, dressed in boots and overalls, from trees in the parks of Paris to illustrate the real human cost. This is not about farmers wishing for an ‘easier life’. It is about the human beings behind the ‘600 farmers a year’ statistic, who felt that enduring was a worse option than ending their life.

Where is the palpable sense of shock at this in media and certain political circles? Where is the recognition that this is far too great a number of lives lost; that a culture of indifference to rural folk may be perpetuating this, and that urgent talks and action should take place to truly listen to farmers’ concerns? In fairness, the French farming minister reportedly stepped up messages of support; but, overall, I don’t detect significant empathy – or calls to action. After 2020, were policy makers afraid that, if they didn’t put themselves in farmers’ boots, they would receive awful coverage for their callousness?

Of course not. In fact, this year, French farmers faced yet more regulation, this time pertaining to a fertiliser tax and restrictions on water usage for land irrigation in the summer. The motivation: environmentalism. As the aforementioned German protestor implied, it has got to the point where the burden on farmers to protect everything and anything has become ridiculous and cruel – especially when sourcing food is literally essential for human survival. The French farmers being French were inclined to protest this immediately and dumped muck, hay bales and rubble outside of municipal buildings in Mont de Marsan. Some of them marched and carried signs reading l’agronomie…pas ideologieagriculture is not ideology.

Herein lies a principal problem with the way in which some journalists, politicians and policy makers might approach farmers and their protests. Certain strands of environmentalism are not about conservation based on evidence, but about the ideological reason that the earth must stay ‘pristine’ from human hands; that the planet would be better off without us, because all flora and fauna would be able to thrive extensively and equally. It is at once a callous and naïve way to picture our existence, obscuring the realities which working the land actually entails. Farmers are not trusted to use any intuitive, practical knowledge of working with nature, and some politicians believe it is their duty to sweep in with more rules in order to ‘protect’ the environment.

There are many causes today which often manage to uplift themselves with furore, where journalists, commentators and politicians are compelled to comment at the injustice, say something empathetic and promise to do better; Black Lives Matter and #MeToo spring to mind. This is not always the case; often, protestors mar their reputations with violence and idiotic rioting. The problem with farming protests, however, doesn’t seem to be that they are widely condemned for chaos, but that they are not really focused on at all: at least not with the intensity that other, more glamorous causes are.

Triggering any empathy or compassion towards farmers seems to be like trying to get blood from a stone. Perhaps the reason for this is also ideological. Many people today decry the laughable contradictions and self-preening virtuousness of ‘wokeism’, but its proponents are serious about its core ideology. Discrimination fuelled by prejudice and bigotry unfortunately still occurs, of course; but hardcore-woke sees power as irrevocably bound to certain characteristics (race, gender, sexuality) above the complexities of individual life circumstances, educational prospects, family background and luck. In this system, European farmers do not fit neatly into many of the ‘oppressed’ categories. The faces at the protests are usually of white, middle aged or older men. And the women? Well, they’re not marching for the right ‘it-girl’ causes and probably wouldn’t be seen dead sipping a Mrs & Mr Markle Inc almond latte. Add to this, that farmers themselves are seen as patriarchally ‘oppressive’ against animals and nature and there is sparse hope of much sympathy coming their way from the more ‘progressive’ thinkers.  

And so it is that, over years of urbanisation, a gap has formed in much of the European political conscience between loving food and appreciating where it has come from. Farmers and their problems may be dismissed because the countryside is too distant for many people to relate to meaningfully. This may, however, be where a glimmer of hope lies: many people care passionately about where their food comes from and are not entirely ignorant about the realities of its production. Countryside activities and learning may become more popular as people seek escapes from the ‘rat race’ and greater connections to the land. Nonetheless, with education set to focus predominantly on ‘climate emergencies’ rather than balanced agriculture and sensible conservation, and with meat free diets being enforced at schools in Lyon, one can hope for the better: but I’m not holding my breath.

Rochelle Blakeman studied Classical Studies at King’s College London and recently finished a masters in International Public and Political Communication at the University of Sheffield.