French Farmers Wield Enormous Power

November 15, 1992|By EDUARDO CUE

PARIS — Paris. -- Anyone who finds it difficult to understand the French position on agricultural subsidies in the current round of trade talks need only drive in any direction from the French capital for an hour or so. Whether west to Normandy and Brittany, southeast toward Burgundy, north through the Picardie or southwest to the Loire Valley and the Bordeaux wine region, the scene is pastoral and exquisite. Softly rolling hills and expanses of plains seem to alternate forever, sprinkled with the stone villages of the Middle Ages.

The French call it "la France profonde" (deep France), and more than a geographical description it connotes a state of mind. Just as the cowboy is seen to portray the essential character of Americans, the gruff, independent peasant sporting a beret and enjoying a pastis in the village cafe symbolizes the essence of France.

Every Frenchman, no matter how sophisticated, traces his origins to the countryside and in some way feels an emotional attachment to the land. Little wonder, then, that when 200,000 angry farmers descended on Paris last September to protest proposed reforms to the European Community's Common Agricultural Policy they received encouragement and support from Parisians who wouldn't know the difference between a plow and a combine.

For all its modern industry, research laboratories and state of the art communications and transportation systems, France remains the European Community's most agrarian nation, with more than 1.2 million persons representing six percent of the working population still on the land. But if one counts all those who earn their living from the country's agricultural production, the figure represents 20 percent of the voting population. Today, agriculture accounts for 16.5 percent of all French exports and represents 3.3 percent of the gross domestic product.

Equally important, farmer's groups still wield immense political power and, as they have demonstrated consistently in recent months, they can easily mobilize thousands of their members to block roads, cut the access to cities and generally disrupt everyday life. On June 26, for example, the farmers picked Eurodisney outside Paris as their target, blocking access roads to the amusement park with hundreds of tractors. The resulting wide publicity was exactly what they wanted.

The political clout of the farmers is so impressive, in fact, that one of the few subjects on which the ruling Socialists and the conservative opposition agree is opposition to United States demands to reduce agricultural subsidies and lower production of cereals, meats and oilseeds.

"If we accepted the American demands we would have to mobilize the army to face the biggest farmers' revolt in recent French history," a government official said recently.

Anyone who has witnessed truck loads of sheep and other animals being burned to death or the dumping of tons of manure in front of local government offices can have little doubt about the political and social consequences of an agreement that is not to the liking of the agricultural community.

But beyond the political strength of the farmers and the importance of the agricultural sector to the French economy, there is a consensus here that the United States has been trying to destroy the Common Agricultural Policy in an effort to regain the market share it has been steadily losing in recent years. Some observers are even arguing that Washington needs to regain control of the market if it is to maintain its ability to pressure other countries now that the Soviet threat no longer exists.

"It has been six years since the negotiations began," remarks Industry Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, "and it has been six years that they [the United States] have only one idea in mind: to destroy the Common Agricultural Policy."

Demands that the EC reduce its production of oil seeds strikes a particularly sensitive chord among growers. "The Americans should be thinking of new ways of using oil-seed production instead of restricting European output which is not even exported outside the community," says Pierre Cuypers, the administrator of the French Federation of Oil-Seed Producers.

"Our oil-seed production is no threat to the Americans, as Europe is only 30 percent self-sufficient and we are not competing on export markets," Mr. Cuypers adds. "But the Americans think only of protecting their soya sales because they are in trouble. In other words, they want us to make space in our markets so they can move in, even if this would harm a series of dependent industries in France."

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