Revolting Peasants




I have been travelling in Normandy this week, mostly in the Perche region between Chartres and Le Mans. The local peasants – and the Perche is the very heart and centre of peasant farming in the North – are making a great deal of their opposition to the Common Agricultural Policy this year. Their argument is, of course, that the CAP (which they call the PAC, Politique Agricole Commune), which was once the great defender of the small farmer, now looks set to drive him out of business.

The roads all over Normandy are lined with hand-painted boards bearing a number of slogans revealing great variety in the educational standards of their writers. On one road, 'Touches pas au paysan' (hand zoff the peasants) was followed by 'NON à la désertification du milieu paysan' (say no to the desertisation of the peasant-farming economy). One of the best and commonest is 'PAS DE PAYS SANS PAYSANS' (you can't have a country without countryfolk), and many concentrate on the idea that the removal of peasants produces desert. On Monday the local roads were clogged by a long but peaceful procession of tractors doing their local bit to cause disruption. One can't help feeling, of course, that the farmers who plan to use 50,000 tractors to block the approach roads to Paris will cause more disruption than those who held me up for five minutes between Nogent-le-Rotrou and Thiron-Gardais; but the farmer next door tells me it's the weather-man's fault; he keeps predicting thunderstorms, and no-one will venture far from home when there's hay to get in.  

The next day, however, some of them had ventured as far as Alençon, administrative centre of the Département of the Orne, where they had blocked one of the streets leading to the town centre and were giving away roast beef and cider to demonstrate that they might as well give as accept the new prices. Vast tractors were parked at the foot of the War Memorial, two French flags whipping in the breeze above the banners with the same slogans as those by the roadsides, plus a rather neat one reading 'Mitterrand, Maastricht, Mensonges'- the last word meaning lies. They were also handing out what at first I thought was a sheet of slogans, but which turned out to be a page of statistics. Since the war, four million jobs have been lost in French agriculture; in the last three years 112,000 farms have disappeared. You can't really blame these people, who produce nearly a quarter of the EC's farm output, for feeling insecure.




The hay will be in by the weekend, my neighbour tells me, and then they have just a week before the corn harvest. They're already on the road to Paris, many of those tractors already in place, hidden in barns and fields ready for the big blockade. Headquarters has been established at Chartres, and on Monday night they'll start to block every road to Paris.  

And what good will it do them, I ask my neighbour. He shrugs. He's a French farmer, and they get good at shrugging. All very well to block a road, he says, but what happens when the riot police come along with bulldozers and wreck your tractor? Think the insurance will pay up? How are you going to feel the next morning, alone with a heap of scrap iron a hundred miles from home? And with a harvest to get in? Sure, the CAP is a vicious imposition; yes, it's insane to pay people to leave their fields fallow when the world is starving; but what sort of person will risk his own livelihood to protest when he knows it won't do any good?

I'll tell you what sort of person, says my Norman farmer, the ones with no hope, the ones already deep in debt, the ones with a few acres fit only for pasture; the ones with nothing to lose. Oh, and a few who work on big farms and have been sent along by their employers with the oldest tractor, paid to get bashed by the police while the boss sits in the restaurant. One of those big landowners turned up at a demonstration the other week, and he was lucky not to be lynched.  

My neighbour himself is all right. He has ninety acres about an average farm in France and went heavily into free-range hens ten years ago, just ahead of the fashion. He won't be demonstrating, he won't be giving chickens away, he'll be at home as usual, doing the best he can. Which, the EC being what it is, is probably the sanest reaction. 

For those travelling in France this summer, a few more field slogans: 

PAC 92 mort des campagnes – CAP 92 the death of the countryside.
Mitterrand fossoyeur – Mitterrand the gravedigger
NON a l'Europe – this one has just started to appear, ready for the referendum
Nos terres en friches pour le profit des americains – Our land lies fallow for American profit. (I suspect the author of the one about desertification has been at work again here.)
Jachere = misere – Setting land aside produces poverty.
PAC = cholera peste – CAP = cholera and plague. (a bit strong, that one.)
Agriculture = petrole vert – agriculture is green petrol; a confused reference to one of the farmers' leaders' better points; that, rather than let land lie fallow, the EC should pay farmers to grow crops which can be turned into fuels such as ethanol - green petrol.
Friche = incendie – fallow = fire. (rather poetic, that)
PAC = faillite du monde rural – CAP means the bankruptcy of the rural world.
Non au dictat des amis requins – no to the dictatorship of friendly sharks (the Americans again)
Ici du lin, du blé, pas des orties – flax and corn, not thistles.
Vive le mouton francais – hooray for French mutton
Non a la viande importé – no to imported meat.
Dix paysans, cinquante emplois – ten peasants (produce) fifty jobs.
Jachère = faim – land set aside means hunger.

Which might well be the last word.
Hedley Grenfell-Banks