Why French farmers are plotting revolution
Where's the French beef? Credit: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty   

Combray is a fictitious French village in the novels of Marcel Proust. It is also a genuine village, or constellation of hamlets and farms, in the Norman hills 30 kilometres south of Caen.

Daniel Courval’s farm is as satisfying a picture of times past as any conjured by the words of Proust — a stone house and a necklace of out-buildings in a hidden valley on the edge of the ‘real’ Combray. Snowy-white Charolais cattle graze on sloping fields, climbing to a rocky, wooded plateau.

“Yes, it’s beautiful here but look — look at these fields with all their slopes and dips,” M. Courval said. “Most of this ground is full of boulders and pebbles. I can raise beef animals here but I can’t do much else. That’s the problem. You’re looking at the problem right there. They, the people in Paris, in Brussels, say that they want the countryside to survive. They say we are the custodians of this beauty and that we must preserve it. But without beef cows there will be no farm and no beauty…”

“If you can’t make a living raising cows here, there is nothing that you can do here except plant trees. Look, up there, on the ridge where all those conifers are. That was also a farm 30 years ago… Now it’s just trees.”

M. Courval is 59. He is wearing shorts and a grey vest. It’s over 35 degrees centigrade today, and his grass has stopped growing earlier than usual this summer after a series of canicules (heatwaves). But that is not what is worrying him.

He has farmed here since 1990 and, unusually for a French farmer, does not come from an agricultural family. He trained as an accountant but decided to work on the land when he left the army. He married Christine from the farm next door and they combined their holdings into one 160 hectare (400 acre) beef farm.

For the last 10 years, Daniel has been president of the Calvados beef farmers — struggling with the changing moods and policies of Paris and Brussels but also with the large agri-business companies that are the real power in French farming.

He has gained a new foe in recent years, the “militant vegans” who are preaching anti-meat politics in France — yes even in meat-loving France. “They are entitled to their views. But they shouldn’t say that I’m an evil man, operating the equivalent of a concentration camp for animals. That I can’t forgive. Does this look like a concentration camp to you?”

But it is not the advance of militant veganism that most worries M. Courval today. He, like beef farmers not just in France but also in Ireland and other EU countries, is incensed by a draft EU free trade agreement with the “Mercosur” countries– Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Under the terms of the deal, yet to be ratified by national governments, Europe will open its borders to a quota of tariff-free Latin American beef and another quota of low tariff beef in two years’ time.

“We’re not afraid of competition,” Daniel said. “We’re not against free trade. Most of my animals go abroad, to Italy or Spain. We just want consistency. They can’t say we must preserve the European countryside and then ask us to compete on price with giant ranches or feeding-lots. They can’t ask us to observe the highest possible standards of animal and food hygiene and then tell us to risk infection from meat or animals from countries with different standards and weaker controls.

“They can’t complain about Brazil threatening the environment by destroying its rain-forests and then ease restrictions on imports of beef grown on rain-forest land that is still being cleared every day.”

While the Amazon rainforest recedes, the forested area of France grows each year as beef and other farms go out of business, he points out. Is that what Brussels and Paris want? Do they want to shift the trees from Brazil to France? To destroy the French countryside while pretending — and paying large subsidies — to preserve it?

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France is just recovering from one rural rebellion against the alleged arrogance and economic domination of the country’s 20 or so thriving cities and metropolitan areas. Yet the country’s farmers — never usually shy of a fight — declined for the most part to join in the Gilets Jaunes protests, which have now subsided.

The Mercosur Treaty has the potential to be the next flash-point — and not just in France — in the battle between global and local, between metropolitan and rural, between booming cities and flyover (or perhaps that should be drive-through) countryside. French farming organisations talk of a rebellion of their own, or maybe even joining forces with the Yellow Jackets if they revive their protests in September.

For Brussels, the treaty is regarded as a great coup after 40 years of negotiation. It will make the EU single market and the four South American countries by far the biggest free-trading bloc in the world.

There is much there to benefit French luxury or industrial goods produced in booming urban islands amid thousands of square kilometres of struggling countryside. There are also advantages for some French producers of farm goods — from cheese to milk powder to wine.

European exporters to the four South American countries will be spared more than €4 billion in tariffs currently imposed on cars, clothing, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The Mercosur states will agree to stop misusing European labels of origin such as “champagne” or “parmesan” or “cognac”. Public contracts in the four countries will be open to European bids for the first time.

Beyond the trade opportunities, European capitals regard the Mercosur treaty as a geo-political and environmental coup, tilting much of South America away from the United States and towards Europe. It ties Brazil more effectively to its weak commitments under the Paris Climate accord treaty (something that President Jair Bolsonaro had pledged to repudiate.)

Brazil will now, in theory at least, be held by the new trade treaty to its Paris commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions by 37% before 2025 and to end the illegal deforestation of the Amazon basin by 2030. EU officials say that the anger of beef farmers is, therefore, misplaced. The new treaty will eventually stop the conversion of Brazilian tropical forest to pasture land. The proposed quotas for beef — 99,000 tonnes at a reduced 7.5% tariff and 60,000 tonnes tariff free — are less than what the Mercosur countries export already, and a fraction of the 8,000,000 tonnes a year EU beef market.

Such an argument does little to reassure Courval, who points out that the Brazilians will be able to create new beef prairies and that the treaty says nothing about what type of beef is exported: “If it’s high-value cuts, even a small amount could destabilise the whole market for beef in Europe.”

More than a thousand French beef farms have gone out of business in the last three years, he says, and while the price of steak or mince in the shops may seem high to consumers, “it’s less, kilo for kilo, than you pay for a pizza”.

M. Courval raises calves until they’re about eight months old and then sells them for fattening elsewhere. Twenty years ago he reckoned on receiving the equivalent of €800 for a male calf and €500 for a female. The price has stayed flat while “the cost of everything we need for the farm and everything has doubled or more”.

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The balance sheet of Mr Courval’s farm should be compulsory reading for those who talk glibly about abolishing “generous farm subsidies”. He and his wife have 90 breeding cows and two bulls, and a total herd, with calves, of about 280 animals. They are left with around €25,000 a year to live on — their annual salary for two people’s work — while the farm receives €50,000 a year in subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), headage payments for each breeding cow and payments for preserving traditional grassland.

Without that, Daniel and Christine would make a €25,000 annual loss, and there would be no farm: “The fir trees would have taken over. There’s not a beef farmer I know who wouldn’t prefer to live from his own animal sales, but the consumers don’t want to pay more. The big supermarket chains and agro-industry companies don’t want to share more of their profits. What choice do we have?”

And Daniel and Christine’s farm is relatively large and prosperous by French beef farming standards. The average income for a beef producer in France, post-subsidies, is €11,000.

“All farms are getting bigger and bigger, in an attempt to make ends meet,” Daniel says. “But there’s a limit to how big you can become if you have two people looking after animals. The big cereal farms can hire in machinery and labour. You can’t hire machinery to look after cows.”

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And another threat faces his picture-book farm in the Norman hills — and similar farms all over Europe. The existing seven-year budget for the CAP runs out next year, and with Britain removed (probably) from the EU equation post-Brexit, the Germans and others are pushing for cuts.

For decades, most French governments have paid lip service to ‘family farms’ and ‘traditional agriculture’, while shovelling the biggest share of EU subsidies to large and rich cereal business, which are crucial to France’s position as a food exporting nation. President Emmanuel Macron has now broken with that tradition, and has supported a European Commission proposal to create a subsidy ceiling of €100,000 per farm. That is potentially good news for smaller farmers like Daniel, but will the biggest French farming union, the FDSEA, traditionally dominated by big cereals interests, go along with it?

CAP cuts or no CAP cuts, the Mercosur treaty could be the final straw  for European beef farms, Daniel fears. “Don’t say we’re anti-free trade or we’re protectionist,” he says. “We welcome free trade when the terms are fair and safe. But there’s a lot of cheating goes on in international trade. The French state has cut back on inspectors and inspections to save money…We don’t want to be destroyed by competition on unequal terms or by animal diseases imported because their rules are less strict than ours.”

Farmers stood aside from the Yellow Jacket protest because they thought that the rebellion was “charging in all directions and not really our fight”, he adds. Their leaders now talk of “direct action” of their own if they receive no Mercosur guarantees, and already there have been dozens of recent incidents of tractor-loads of manure being dumped outside government offices.

“There will be some who go down that route,” Daniel said. “But I’m doubtful whether it will save us. Most farmers that I talk to are now resigned to their fate. We are no longer as numerous and powerful as we were. We don’t have the power we once had. Blockage of roads, that kind of thing, is no longer tolerated.”

He fears for the future of traditional farms like his. “My son is 17 and he wants to go into farming. Will he be here in 10 years or 20? My two daughters have already moved away. One of them is training in Paris to be a specialist in international trade…”

Mr Courval gives me a wry look. She has seen the future, the look implies, and it’s not in Combray. A case of Marcel Proust in reverse : “A la recherche du futur perdu.”