(1953 - )
Farmer in a Cell?
Who Jose Bove, the anti-McDonalds vandal and sometime Palestinian liberator, really is.
Among the oddest side shows in the current Middle East impasse was the short-lived appearance of French farmer and trade unionist Jose Bove in the Ramallah compound of besieged Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat. Arrested outside the compound by the Israeli Defense Force on April 2, Bove -- who gained international attention after destroying a McDonalds in the southern French town of Millau in 1999 -- was deported to Paris the next day.
Bove has become, in recent years, a surprisingly ubiquitous international figure, turning up at Zapatista marches in Mexico and anti-trade conferences from Seattle to Brazil. And part of the reason for his ubiquity is that he is not a farmer-turned-activist at all.
Instead, he is a self-proclaimed activist-turned-farmer who has spent less and less time on his Millau farm in recent years and who routinely inserts himself into international controversies.
Bove, born in Bordeaux in 1953, grew up living with parents who were highly mobile agricultural chemists. His family spent several years living in Berkeley, California, and Bove later attended secondary school in a Parisian suburb. In the early 1970s, he recalled in a 2001 interview with the New Left Review, he became influenced by the mix of anarcho-syndicalist, Spanish Civil War, and Gandhian philosophies then popular with the French left movement in Bordeaux.
Bove still considers himself an anarcho-syndicalist, according to an October 2000 Times of London profile. Anarcho-syndicalism, in France, gave rise to one of that nation's oldest trade unions, the Confederation Generale du Travail, now run by the French Communist Party. The philosophy, developed in its early years by the likes of Mikhail Bakunin, is generally understood as one that sees the working class as a means toward achieving an anarchist society.
Bove's disdain for international organizations such as the World Trade Organization is matched only by his belief that states themselves are increasingly irrelevant. "We no longer live under conditions of traditional management and inter-state conflicts, but in the middle of a war between private powers with the market as the battleground," he explained in an extract from his book, The World is Not For Sale, published on June 13, 2001 in The Guardian. "The strength of the global movement [that is gathering around the world] is precisely that it differs from place to place, while building confidence between people. Today, people mobilise without wanting to take over state institutions, and maybe this is a new way of conducting politics. The future lies in changing daily life by acting on an international level."
Bove has been "acting" on many levels, in many places, for quite some time. After leading a protest that shut down his Catholic school in 1968, Bove attended the University of Bordeaux. He soon dropped out to became an anti-military activist, eventually working as an organizer with a small group of French farmers in the rocky, windswept Larzac region. They were protesting the expansion of a Ministry of Defence training area onto land they used to farm sheep. It was not until 1985 that the Larzac conflict was finally settled, with an agreement allowing the farmers to rent the land from the government. But by the winter of 1975–76, Bove and his wife had moved into a farmhouse on the military-owned land, squatting at first and later becoming part of a sheep-farming collective that produced Roquefort cheeses. In 1976, Bove spent three weeks in jail for invading a military outpost.
In 1987, Bove helped found and became a leading spokesperson for the Confederation Paysanne, a radical farmer's union designed to champion small producers. And his activism continued. Among other protests, in 1988, Bove and the confederation helped organize the "Plowing the Champs Elysees" protest in Paris to object to European farm policies. In 1990, he led protests and hunger strikes demanding more government subsidies for sheep farmers. And in 1995, he joined Greenpeace activists on the Rainbow Warrior II to protest renewed French nuclear testing.
Bove has also shown a particular vengeance when it comes to certain food products. In 1999, after the United States slapped a 100 percent duty on Roquefort cheese in response to a European decision to ban importation of hormone-treated U.S. beef, Bove led a group of farmers and activists in an assault on a half-built McDonalds in Millau. "The Americans took Roquefort hostage, so we had to act beyond the law to defend ourselves," he told The Times of London. After dismantling the Millau McDonalds -- removing doors, roofing, and electrical plates using a tractor, axes, and chainsaws -- Bove spent 23 days in jail. The French courts subsequently gave him a stiff three month jail term for the attack, but Bove has continued to appeal his sentence.
Undeterred, in January, 2001, Bove helped lead an invasion by 1,300 farmers into wrecking genetically modified Brazilian corn and soybean fields managed by U.S. biotechnology firm Monsanto. They pulled up the crops, burned seeds, and destroyed documents in the company's offices, according to an Agence-France Presse report. In March of that same year, Bove was sentenced to a 10-month suspended prison term and two years of probation in Montpellier, France, for destroying genetically modified rice plants inside a research laboratory in 1999. Bove and two co-defendants from Confederation Paysanne were also ordered to pay $48,500 dollars in fines and damages. (Bove's later appeal of that sentence was spectacularly unsuccessful, and he was resentenced, in December 2001, to six months in jail. He has appealed the case again, and, under French law, need not begin serving his time until he has exhausted his appeals.)
His recent trip to Ramallah was not Bove's first visit to the West Bank. A June 21, 2001, story in The Independent describes an earlier confrontation between the Israelis and Bove's international activist colleagues, led by Canadian-Israeli Neta Golan, in Al-Khader, a Palestinian village on the southern edge of Bethlehem. Golan is currently holed up with Arafat in Ramallah.
It started peacefully enough. Mr Bove was greeted by the local Israeli police commander, Ephriam Arditi, plus around 60 police and soldiers. Surrounded by cameras, the Frenchman put his case. What were the Israelis doing defending land that was not theirs? If it was -- as the police claim -- a closed military area, then why were settlers allowed access to it? Did they not realise this was a crime?
"I'm a farmer, and these (Palestinian) people are farmers too. So I am fighting with them to help them protect their land," Mr Bove told the watching media. With Mr Arditi caught in the middle of the crowd, the soldiers started elbowing reporters out of the way, and the shoving began. Minutes later one of the activists was arrested and dragged away. "No violence! No violence!" chanted Mr Bove and his friends. A group of Palestinians nearby took up chanting but maybe misheard the French accent as they shouted: "No peace! No peace!"
Bove and seven others were arrested at the 2001 protest. When asked to explain why he had gone to the West Bank, Bove later gave the New Left Review this bizarre reply: The Israelis are "putting in place -- with the support of the World Bank -- a series of neoliberal measures intended to integrate the Middle East into globalized production circuits, through the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labour."
But don't blame Bove for pointing fingers at the World Bank and international capital as the source of the ongoing conflict. Developing a real understanding of the history and politics of the Middle East -- and a feeling response to terrorism -- may well be too much for the man.
After all, he's only a simple farmer.
A FARMERS’ INTERNATIONAL?
What was your formation as an activist in France—were you too young to participate in 1968?
I was then in my first years of secondary school, outside Paris, but of course I was affected by what was going on—the May events, the discussions, the whole atmosphere. I didn’t do much, apart from an occupation of the school football pitch. It was in the last years at school that I started going on demonstrations. When I was 17 I got involved in the struggle against military service—for the rights of conscientious objectors and deserters. There was a network of groups throughout France. We used to attend the military tribunals every week to offer support for the boys doing military service—and for the regular soldiers, put on trial for stealing or getting into conflict with an officer. We collected all the statistics and publicized what was really going on inside the army. In 1970, 71, I moved to Bordeaux with my parents, just after the baccalauréat. I had been born there, but my parents—agricultural researchers, who worked on the diseases of fruit trees—moved round quite a lot. We spent a few years in Berkeley when I was a child.
I could have gone to university in Bordeaux, but I wanted to work full-time with the conscientious objectors. It was then, in the early 70s, that the peasants of the Larzac plateau got in touch with us. The Army had decided to expand the military base there—from 3,000 hectares to 17,000. The local farmers asked for our support in setting up resistance groups. We built up a network of over 200 Larzac committees in France; there were some in Germany and Britain, too. All new construction on the plateau had been forbidden so, in 1973, we started building a sheep barn there, right in the middle of the zone that the Army had earmarked. Hundreds, even thousands came to help—we called it a manifestation en dur: a concrete demonstration. We built it completely in stone, in the traditional way. It took nearly two years. At the same time, our network was in touch with a mountain farmers’ group in the Pyrenees. We used to take military-service objectors to work up there, on land that’s too steep and mountainous for machinery—everything has to be done by hand. That was where I had my first experience of dairy farming and cheese-making. Then, in the winter of 75–76, the Larzac farmers decided we should squat the empty farms that the Army had bought up around the base. I moved into Montredon, as a sheep farmer—with many close contacts in the region.
What were the main influences on you at that stage?
There were two strands. One was the libertarian thinking of the time—anarcho-syndicalist ideas, in particular: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War. There were still a lot of Civil War veterans living in Bordeaux, and we used to have discussions with them. The other was the example of people involved in non-violent action strategies: Luther King and the civil rights movement in the States; César Chávez, the Mexican farm-worker who organized the Latino grape-pickers in California. There was a strong Gandhian influence, too: the idea that you can’t change the world without making changes in your own life; the attempt to integrate powerful symbolic actions into forms of mass struggle.
In much of Europe and the United States, there was a clear rupture between the struggles of the sixties and seventies and those of today, with big defeats—Reagan, Thatcher—lying in between. In the States, in particular, there seems to be a new generation involved now in the anti-globalization protests. In France, there has perhaps been less sense of a clear-cut defeat, but less generational renewal, too?
The seventies were years of powerful militancy in France, coinciding with a political situation in which there was a possibility of the Left parties taking office for the first time. There was a lot of hope in 1981, when Mitterrand was elected. The ebb came in the eighties. Some people argued, ‘We mustn’t do anything that would damage the Socialists’. Others were disillusioned and quit politics, saying: ‘We thought this would change things, but nothing has changed’. They were the years of commercialization, of individual solutions, when cash was all-important. We weren’t affected by that so much in the peasants’ movement. On the Larzac plateau, after our victory against the army in 81, we started organizing for self-management of the land, bringing in young people to farm, taking up the question of Roquefort and intensive farming, fighting for the rights of small producers, building up the trade-union networks that eventually came together in the Confédération Paysanne. So for us, the eighties were very rich years. There was no feeling of a downturn.
As for the young generation: it’s true that many of the campaigns of the nineties were a bit drab. They made their point, but they did not draw many people in. It was the emergence of another set of issues—the housing struggles of the homeless, the campaigns of the sans-papiers—that began to create new forms of political activity, crystallizing in the anti-globalization movement of the last few years. At the trial over dismantling the McDonald’s in Millau in June 2000, we had over 100,000 supporters, lots of them young people. Since then, in Nice, Prague, Genoa, there has been a real sense of a different sort of consciousness. It comes from a more global way of thinking about the world, where the old forms of struggle—in the workplace or against the state—no longer carry the same weight. With the movement against a monolithic world-economic system, people can once again see the enemy more clearly. That had been a problem in the West. It’s been difficult for people to grasp concretely what the new forms of alienation involve, in an economy that has become completely autonomous from the political sphere. But at the same time—and this may be more specific to France—the anti-globalization movement here has never cut itself off from other social forces. We’ve always seen the struggle for the rights of immigrants and the excluded, the sans-papiers, the unemployed, the homeless, as part of the struggle against neoliberalism. We couldn’t conceive of an anti-globalization movement that didn’t fight for these rights at home.
You founded the Confédération Paysanne in 1987. What is its project?
Firstly, it’s a defence of the interests of peasants as workers. We’re exploited, too—by the banks, by the companies who buy our produce, by the firms who sell us equipment, fertilizers, seeds and animal feed. Secondly, it’s a struggle against the whole intensive-farming system. The goals of the multinationals who run it are minimum employment and maximum, export-oriented production—with no regard for the environment or food quality. Take the calf-rearing system. First the young calf is separated from its mother. Then it’s fed on milk that’s been machine-extracted, transported to a factory, pasteurized, de-creamed, dried, reconstituted, packaged and then, finally, re-transported to the farms—with huge subsidies from the EU to ensure that the processed milk actually works out cheaper than the stuff the calves could have suckled for themselves. It’s this sort of economic and ecological madness, together with the health risks that intensive farming involves, that have given the impetus to an alternative approach.
The Right has always tried to control and exploit the farmers’ movement in Europe, in accordance with its own conservative, religious aims. The agricultural policy of the traditional Left was catastrophic, completely opposed to the world of the peasants in whose name it spoke. We wanted to outline a farming strategy—autonomous of the political parties—that expressed the farmers’ own demands rather than instrumentalizing them for other ends. We’re committed to developing forms of sustainable agriculture, which respect the need for environmental protection, for healthy food, for labour rights. Any farmer can join the Confédération Paysanne. It’s not limited to those using organic methods or working a certain acreage. You just have to adhere to the basic project. There are around 40,000 members now. In the Chambres d’Agriculture elections this year we won 28 per cent of the vote overall—and much more in some départements. It was 44 per cent in Aveyron, and 46 per cent in La Manche.
How did this come to pit you against the junk-food industry—most famously, dismantling the McDonald’s in Millau?
During the eighties we built up a big campaign in France against the pressures on veal farmers to feed growth hormones to their calves. There was a strong boycott movement, and a lot of publicity about the health risks. Successive Ministers of Agriculture were forced to impose restrictions, despite heavy lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry. At the end of the eighties the EU banned their use in livestock-rearing, but it has been wriggling about on the question ever since. In 1996, the US submitted a complaint to the WTO about Europe’s refusal to import American hormone-treated beef—exploiting the results of a scientific conference, organized by EU Commissioner Franz Fischler, that had concluded, scandalously, that five of the hormones were perfectly safe. But there was so much popular opposition, linked to people’s growing anxieties about what was happening in the food chain—mad cow disease, Belgian chickens poisoned with benzodioxin, salmonella scares, GMOs—that the European Parliament actually held firm. When the WTO deadline expired in the summer of 1999, the US slapped a retaliatory 100 per cent surcharge on a long list of European products—Roquefort cheese among them. This was a huge question locally—not just for the sheep’s milk producers, but for the whole Larzac region.
When we said we would protest by dismantling the half-built McDonald’s in our town, everyone understood why—the symbolism was so strong. It was for proper food against malbouffe, agricultural workers against multinationals. The actual structure was incredibly flimsy. We piled the door-frames and partitions on to our tractor trailers and drove them through the town. The extreme Right and other nationalists tried to make out it was anti-Americanism, but the vast majority understood it was no such thing. It was a protest against a form of food production that wants to dominate the world. I saw the international support for us building up, after my arrest, watching TV in prison. Lots of American farmers and environmentalists sent in cheques.
How have you coordinated international solidarity with peasants and farmers in other lands?
From the early eighties, we started thinking about organizing on a European level. We felt we shouldn’t stay on our own in France when there were other farmers’ networks in Switzerland, Austria, Germany. We needed a common structure in the face of European agricultural policy, which is completely dominated by the interests of agribusiness. That was why we decided to set up the Coordination Paysanne Européenne, with its office in Brussels. It was through this movement that we got in contact with peasants’ groups in other continents. It was about ten years ago that the idea of setting up an international structure was born. This was Via Campesina. There are many different peasants’ organizations involved: the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association from South India, which has played a big role in militant direct-action campaigns against GM seeds—they represent some 10 million farmers; the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, who lead land occupations by peasant families, and have an important social and educational programme. There are regional networks in every continent, organizing around their own objectives—Europe, North America, Central and South America, Asia and Africa. And then there is an overall coordinating executive which is based in Honduras at the moment, but will be moving to Asia next year.
You went to Seattle with Via Campesina. What was your critique of the WTO?
It was a big victory for agribusiness when food and agriculture were brought into the GATT process in 1986: a huge step towards regulating agricultural trade and production along neoliberal lines. Countries were no longer free to adopt their own food policies. They were obliged to lower tariffs and take a percentage of imports—which means, effectively, US and EU products: 80 per cent of world food exports come from these two. The process was taken further with the 1994 Marrakesh agreement that set up the WTO. Now a state can only refuse to import agricultural or food produce on the grounds of protecting the health of its population and livestock. The threat to these is determined by the Codex Alimentarius, which is in turn run by the food giants: 60 per cent of its delegates are from the EU and US.
The Marrakesh accords were supposed to be subject to a balance sheet at Seattle—of course, this never came. Not that we need an official report to know that the countries of the South have been the biggest losers: opening their borders has invited a direct attack on the subsistence agriculture there. For example, South Korea and the Philippines used to be self-sufficient in rice production. Now they’re compelled to import lower-grade rice at a cheaper price than the local crops, decimating their own paddy production. India and Pakistan are being forced to import textile fibres, which is having a devastating effect on small cotton farmers. In Brazil—a major agricultural exporter—a growing percentage of the population is suffering from actual malnutrition. The multinationals are taking over, denying large numbers of farming families access to the land and the possibility of feeding themselves.
What were your demands at Seattle?
Firstly, all countries should have the right to impose their own tariffs, to protect their own farming and food resources and maintain a balance between town and countryside. People have a fundamental right to produce the food they need in the area where they live. That means opposing the current relocation of American and European agribusiness—chicken and pig farms, and greenhouse vegetables—to countries with cheap labour and no environmental regulation. These firms don’t feed the local people: on the contrary, they destroy the local agriculture, forcing small peasant-farming families off the land, as in Brazil. Secondly, we have to take measures to end the multinationals’ dumping practice. It’s a well-established tactic used to sweep a local agriculture out of the way. They flood a country with very cheap, poor-quality produce, subsidized by massive handouts in export aid and other help from big financial interests. Then they raise prices again, once the small farmers have been destroyed. In sub-Saharan Africa, livestock herds have been halved as a result of the big European meat companies flooding in heavily subsidized frozen carcasses. The abolition of all export aid would be a first step towards fair trading. The world market would then reflect the real cost of production for the exporting countries.
Thirdly, we absolutely refuse the right of the multinationals to impose patents on living things. It’s bio-piracy, the grossest form of expropriation on the planet. Patents are supposed to protect a new invention or a new technique, not a natural resource. Here, it’s not even the technique but the products, the genetically modified seeds themselves, that are ‘patented’ by half-a-dozen chemical companies, violating farmers’ universally recognized right to gather seed for the next year’s harvest. The multinationals’ GM programme has also been a ferocious attack on biodiversity. For instance, something like 140,000 types of rice have been cultivated in Asia, over the centuries. They’ve been adapted to particular local tastes and growing conditions—long-grain, short-grain, variations in height, taste, texture, tolerance of humidity and temperatures, and so on. The food companies are working on five or six strains, genetically modified for intensive, low-labour cultivation, and imposing them in areas of traditional subsistence farming. In some Asian countries—the Philippines and China are the worst cases—these half-dozen varieties now cover two-thirds of rice-growing land.
What would be your alternative to the WTO?
We’ve argued for an International Trade Tribunal—in parallel to the International Court of Human Rights—with a Charter, and judges nominated by the UN. There should be transparency of action, and private individuals, groups and trade unions should be able to bring cases, as well as states. The Tribunal would play a constitutional role, advising on whether international economic accords should be ratified: they would have to concur with the individual and collective rights to which UN members are signatories—the right to food, to shelter, to work, education, health. These rights need to be imposed upon the market; they should be respected not just by states but by economic institutions. It’s a similar process to that of the Kyoto accords on the environment.
Kyoto surely doesn’t offer a very powerful precedent?
I agree. But these things take time. The call for an International War Crimes Tribunal has now been ratified by 30 or 40 countries, although it’s taken almost four decades. But it’s essential to ask what structures we do want, for multilateral trade. We have to develop a long-term global vision, without being naïve. That will require a certain balance of forces.
Others in Via Campesina—the MST, for instance—have called for the abolition of the WTO, rather than its reform. Are the experiences of North and South at odds here?
‘Food out of the WTO’ is Via Campesina’s demand. We’re all agreed on the three main points—food sovereignty, food safety, patenting. For the people of the South, food sovereignty means the right to protect themselves against imports. For us, it means fighting against export aid and against intensive farming. There’s no contradiction there at all. We can stage an action in one part of the world without in any way jeopardizing the interests of the peasants elsewhere, whether it’s uprooting genetically modified soya plants with the Landless Movement in Brazil, as we did last January, or demonstrating with the Indian farmers in Bangalore, or pulling up GM rice with them when they came to France, or protesting with the peasants and the Zapatistas in Mexico—effectively, our demands are the same. Of course there are different points of view in Via Campesina—it’s the exchange of opinions and experiences that makes it such a fantastic network for training and debate. It’s a real farmers’ International, a living example of a new relationship between North and South.
Shouldn’t the anti-globalization movement oppose globalized forms of military power—NATO, for example, as well as the WTO?
That’s more complicated. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t fight against NATO. But behind the military conflict there is often a far more cunning and destructive form of economic colonization going on, through the programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank—opening regions up to the multinationals, dismantling public services, privatizing utilities. In Sarajevo in the mid-nineties, for instance, there were people in the French military contingent who weren’t officers at all but representatives of the multinational, Vivendi—originally Eaux de France. They spent their whole time studying the water mains and the infrastructure. When the fighting was over, they were on the spot to offer their services in reconstructing Bosnia’s utilities. Today, it’s Vivendi that runs Sarajevo’s water system, as a private service. It’s a form of economic domination that we’re seeing throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
We do need to denounce the role of the sole military superpower as world policeman. But its economic dominance is more important. There tend to be anti-war protests against particular conflicts, rather than around militarism as such. There was quite a big mobilization in France against the Gulf War, although it wasn’t easy since it was a Socialist government that was prosecuting the War. But the way the West struck simply in order to control the oil was so brazen that it did generate real protest. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the situation was much more ambiguous. There was a lot of debate inside the movement between those who opposed the NATO intervention and others who said, quite rightly, that Miloševic’s regime was a rotten, red-brown affair—the old Stalinism in Serb national dress. And people had known what was going on in Kosovo for years. There was a lot of discussion as to what form resistance and solidarity should take. But for me, there can never be a good war. As soon as you reach that stage, it is inevitably the people who lose. I was against both forms of military intervention, as I oppose the American bombardment of Afghanistan.
What is your attitude to the anti-globalization ‘republicanism’ of Chevènement, which has had its reflections in Left thinking elsewhere: Benn in Britain, for example?
I had a public debate with Chevènement on French radio when I was at the anti-globalization conference at Porto Alegre last January. It came down to an opposition of two completely different points of view. Chevènement thinks that the borders of the nation-state can serve as a rampart against globalization. I believe that’s an illusion. Multinational corporations, multilateral accords on investment, free-trade rules operate on quite another level, over and above national frontiers. To say one can have a strong state makes no sense in this context. It just gives people the mirage of a satisfactory form of protection. As Interior Minister, Chevènement was responsible for implementing the most restrictive immigration policies, abrogating the basic human right to freedom of movement. Closing the frontiers does nothing to resolve the fundamental issue at stake in immigration—the inequality between North and South.
Surely the one state whose power hasn’t lessened in the face of these multilateral accords is the USA?
Of course the US completely dominates the IMF and the World Bank, and its will is hegemonic within the Security Council. But the US government, in turn, is just a tool of the big companies. Its political function is simply to relay the economic interests of the major firms—which is why, in the last elections, many people didn’t see any choice between Bush and Gore. Ralph Nader’s campaign highlighted the real nature of American politics. Candidates are effectively elected to be the representatives of financial or industrial groups. The system is entirely at the service of economic interests, which retain the real power. One can see this happening in detailed ways at the level of the federal administration: the power of the multinationals imposes itself directly on the running of the machine. The US state functions as a motor of support for them, institutionally and ideologically. But neoliberalism is not just an American preserve. It goes right across the board—Europe or America, governments of the Right or Social Democrats. In their negotiations with the WTO, there has been no difference between the current EU commissioner for trade—Pascal Lamy, a member of the French Socialist Party—and his predecessor Leon Brittain, a British Conservative. The same thinking— la pensée unique—really is hegemonic everywhere today. It’s not just la pensée américaine. We need to pay attention to its proponents within our own countries, rather than see only the Stars and Stripes.
Jospin came to power promising a more radical agenda than either Blair or Schroeder—what’s the balance sheet?
There is scarcely any difference between the economic programmes of the Right and Left—if one can call the Socialist Party that. For example, there’s been no attempt at a genuine reduction of the working week, just a series of negotiations within each sector. They’re trying to take a middle path. They could have gone much further. Now, with their eyes on next year’s elections, the PS have been trying to recover votes on the Left by making a show of interest in the autonomous movements. But it’s just at the level of talk. They’re doing nothing about the movements’ programmes at the level of policy. At the WTO talks in Doha the French government will be right behind the EU positions. The main question in the legislative and presidential elections next spring will be the percentage of abstentions. A lot of people have been very disappointed in the policies of the Union of the Left—and they don’t necessarily recognize themselves in the hard-left candidates, who will get a few votes in the first round. Chirac and Jospin offer no real choice between alternatives. Their vision of society is the same. We’re moving increasingly towards a situation where economic logic is stronger than any political will. Party leaders simply adjust to the prevailing wind. The Confédération Paysanne is not calling for a vote for any of the parties. I myself wonder whether one should vote at all.
There has been talk of your standing in the presidential election yourself?
Never. That’s not my role. In fact, it’s a condition of membership of the Confédération Paysanne that you cannot stand in an election. Curiously enough, the first person who said I was thinking of standing in the presidentials was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, just after Seattle. A few days later the Socialist Party repeated it—as if the aim was to break the social movement by saying: they do all this just to serve as a trampoline towards a political party, or to enter office. As if one couldn’t have an autonomous movement with a logic of its own, acting as an oppositional force outside the established political domain. I would never see it as my role to act like the leader of a political party, as a professional representative who takes responsibility out of other people’s hands. The aim of a social movement or a union like ours is to enable people to act for themselves. The economy has become an autonomous sphere today, imposing laws of its own. If we are going to create a new politics we have to understand this.
You went to the Israeli-occupied territories this summer, to demonstrate with the Palestinian farmers. What did you learn about the situation there?
First of all, I experienced the reality of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine—that it really is a war of colonization. They’re trying to impose an apartheid system on both the occupied territories and the Arab population in the rest of Israel. They are also putting in place—with the support of the World Bank—a series of neoliberal measures intended to integrate the Middle East into globalized production circuits, through the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labour. Along the frontier with the occupied territories, they’re setting up the same sort of enterprise system you see along the Mexican–US border. So there is a very acute economic dimension to the conflict. The UN resolutions need to be implemented. But there also needs to be a radical reorientation at the economic level, that would offer a viable future to the Palestinians.
The financial press has been triumphantly announcing that September 11 has put paid to the anti-globalization movement. What is your assessment—did the terrorist attacks in the US ‘change everything’?
Underneath, nothing has changed. The world situation remains the same. The institutions are unchanged. And the anti-globalization movements, too, are still here. With the bombardment of Afghanistan, we are seeing the domestic propaganda needs of the United States being elevated to war aims, inflicting revenge on an innocent people already suffering miseries of deprivation, while threatening further destabilization in that part of the world. There is also no doubt that the US wants access to oil wells outside the control of OPEC, and may have its eye on reserves in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. The position of the Confédération Paysanne has been: ‘No to Taliban, No to Terrorism, No to War’.
We also see a new awareness, born of the economic crisis, of the need for regulation and public intervention. In that sense, the logic of globalization is more on the defensive now. The critique of neoliberalism that we have been developing over the last years is more valid than ever after September 11. But the response of most of the states who’ve signed up for what they call the ‘war against terrorism’ is to call for an expansion of neoliberal policies, as if that could resolve the inequalities between different countries, or social layers. They have understood nothing. September 11 should have been a chance to take stock of the sort of social and ideological costs this regime has been exacting, and to call for its radical reform. Instead, they are seeking to reinforce their global domination, escalating the dangers of wider international conflict. As neoliberalism increases the balance of misery in the world, it just augments the numbers of those desperate enough to throw themselves into fanatical, suicidal attacks against it.
Published on Wednesday, October 25, 2000 in the Times of London
The New Asterix
Attacking McDonald’s made French farmer José Bové a folk hero. Now he is taking on other multinationals.
by Charles Bremner
Slightly built and clad in jeans and an old V-neck sweater, the middle-aged sheep farmer hardly cut a dash as we walked into a Chinese eatery in the drab Paris suburb of Bagnolet. But he might have been a rock or football star. A quick hush was followed by a buzz as the customers realised that they had a celebrity in their midst: José Bové, the scourge of McDonald’s and national hero in the struggle to save the Gallic soul from fast food and free trade.
Bové’s choice of the local Chinese was a typical touch for a man who has used a campaign for Roquefort, the quintessentially French cheese made from his ewes’ milk, to turn himself into a figurehead in the global “citizens’ movement” against the World Trade Organisation.
Not surprisingly, he had refused my suggestion to repair to the nearby branch of the company whose mascot, Ronald McDonald, hangs lifesize from a noose in his Paris office. A Big Mac would have been unthinkable for a man who has just been sentenced to three months’ jail for his celebrated assault last year on the “McDo” restaurant under construction in his home town of Millau.
The French still see McDonald’s, which has some 800 booming outlets in the country, as rather exciting, if unpatriotic, Bové says as he tucks into his beef satay. “If you question people coming out of one, they’re embarrassed. It’s like they’ve just been to a sex shop. They say ‘I just went to see what it was like and I won’t be going back’.”
With trademark pipe in hand, the moustachioed “Saint José” patiently explains that his peasants’ revolt has nothing against the Americans or the British, even if hamburgers were his target and Gandhi his model for resistance against the oppressor. “Our struggle is not with the American ‘Great Satan’ — it’s with the multinationals. A lot of them happen to be American. I tell the Americans that what we did in dismantling the McDonald’s restaurant was what they did at Boston when they threw the English tea into the sea.”
As for the British, they may not know much about food, but he admires the anti-GMO movement and is cultivating his ties with Scottish crofters and Welsh hill farmers. And he does not really object to all those anglais who have invaded southern France in their Volvos and Land Rovers.“It’s all right if they try to fit in and get to know the farming people, even if it’s just for the holidays. What’s bad, though, is the way they push up prices. The worst are the ghettoes of foreign-owned houses — all those Dutch who bring their holiday food with them in their cars.”
In little over a year, the war against “McDomination” has shot this eloquent paysan from the obscurity of his hill farm in the lower reaches of the Massif Central to the status of icon. Thanks to his assault on the Millau McDo, plus a talent for exuding plain-man’s indignation, France has fallen in love with the charismatic Bové.
He is being hailed as a new Asterix, leading the plucky Gauls in defiance of the new Romans. A sort of Lech Walesa of the Internet, he is fêted as he jets around the world attending summits of the “new international”, the “alternative global network” that embraces Third World activists, environmentalists and neo-hippies. In France he gets up the nose of the national farmers’ union; mainstream politicians defer to him, admiring his style but privately deploring his Luddite counter-revolution.
A new figure emerged yesterday in the ranks of those who do not worship Bové: his wife Alice. She denounced him in his own union magazine for running a macho organisation, exploiting her and leaving her for another woman.
Most French may do their shopping in cut-price supermarkets, but more than 70 per cent of the public back his campaign against la malbouffe — the term that he invented — which roughly translates as “horrible nosh”.
His admirers, known locally as bovistes, include the likes of Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder, and Ralph Nader, the veteran American campaigner who joined Bové and the other militants of the citizens’ movement in the protests that disrupted last December’s Seattle summit of the WTO. In July, after more than 40,000 people descended on Millau to turn his trial into a Woodstock-style happening, there were calls for him to stand for the presidency. Covered by US TV networks, the “Seattle-on-the-Tarn” spectacular put Bové on the front page of the New York Times and led an American magazine to list him as one of the 50 movers and shakers of Europe.
As unlikely as the soft-spoken 47-year-old seems as a glamour figure, it is not hard to see what lies behind his rise to folk hero. The ingredients are good timing, passion, showmanship and clumsy tactics by the Americans and the French authorities.
With his ruddy cheeks and blunt manner, Bové may look like the authentic paysan, but he hardly hails from the backwoods of la France profonde. He was the son of left-wing university teachers and he spent four years of his early childhood with them in Berkeley, California. “I have strong memories of America,” he says. “I really like the United States. The language is still in my ears and it really helps to be able to explain things to the Americans in English."
Henry Thoreau, the 19th-century Utopian, is one of his heroes. Bové opted for the country life when, along with Alice, his future wife, he dropped out of the University of Bordeaux in the wake of the 1968 student revolt and joined the back-to-the countryside movement. He spent a decade in the epic fight by leftist militants and small farmers to wrest the Larzac plateau, overlooking Millau, from the grips of the Ministry of Defence. He squatted in an empty farm and has stayed on the land since, raising two daughters and becoming a voice in the Confédération Paysanne, a radical movement opposed to big farm business.
Bové had already been given a suspended sentence for destroying genetically modified crops when Washington decided last year to punish Europe, and France in particular, for banning the import of US beef over the use of hormones. Incensed by a 100 per cent duty slapped on Roquefort, Bové decided on "direct action" and descended with a platoon of fellow farmers and local protesters on the Millau McDonald's after notifying the police of his plans. "The Americans took Roquefort hostage, so we had to act beyond the law to defend ourselves," he says. The one-hour demolition job did not, however, meet the docile response that the gendarmes usually accord French farmers when they smash things.
Bové was arrested and briefly jailed after refusing to pay bail, becoming a household name for a country that always takes the side of the protester or the striker. His glory was ensured when he made the news raising his manacled hands in defiance. The Millau trial and unexpectedly harsh jail sentence, passed last month, has confirmed his martyr's crown.
Bové says he brought about a "déclic" - a wake-up call - that touched something in the French psyche as fears over BSE, GMOs and food safety were compounding longstanding unease over the loss of French identity. "Hormones versus Roquefort. You couldn't get a better contrast between local quality and globalisation," he says. "It took small farmers to get people to make the link between farming, food and international politics."
"Le déclic could have happened anywhere, perhaps, but in France more than anywhere one of the first concerns for the individual is to know what's on their plates, and it's through the paysans that this has come about."
Bové's doctrine of "food sovereignty" - set out in a bestselling book - proved potent for an intellectual world that was boiling against the "imperialism" of world trade and France's socialist Government's supposed surrender to globalisation. He became the darling of Le Monde Diplomatique and other bibles of left-wing thinkers. For ordinary people, Bové spoke for the France of petits villages, red wine and honest paysans that inhabits the Gallic imagination.
Decoding "Bovémania", Jean Viard, a leading sociologist, says that Bové, with his "exemplary lifestyle" has established himself as "a bridge between the rural and urban universe. In one man, he is 'we the French'."
Not everyone is joining in the adulation. René Riesel, a colleague who broke with the Confédération last year, says: "José Bové is pure showman with all that circus he cultivates around anti-globalisation. The message is too narrow. He spouts rubbish and collects slogans, and Les Bovistes are sometimes extreme reactionaries."
The view seems to be shared by Alice Monier, Bové's wife, whose attack on him in Campagnes Solidaires, the union monthly, knocked some of the gilt off his halo. In the indignant tones of the wronged spouse, she proclaimed her "sadness and disgust" over her husband's "union of machos". Despite spending years as Bové's unpaid assistant in his campaigning, she did not receive a single phone call from his colleagues, not even a Post-it note on the back of a circular" to support her when their marriage broke up last June. "In other words, the old male tactic of cowardice," she says.
Bové insists that he is not setting himself up as a model, a political leader or a French nationalist. He applies a steam-age label to himself, claiming the mantle of "anarcho-syndicalism".
"We are a counterpower and not a substitute for politics. We have no fixed answer for everything. We are trying to stir a two-pronged movement, linking the land to globalisation, making people think." In practice, this translates as a form of Utopian protectionism. For a start, the WTO should be rebuilt as a democratic regulator of trade rather than an instrument of "planetary dictatorship".
"Taxes should be used to encourage farmers in all countries to produce quality food. People should be educated to shun the industrialised malbouffe that is impoverishing the rural world and destroying a healthy way of life.
"People don't object to paying for defence, but feeding the population properly is surely more important than the atomic bomb."
He admits the contradiction, some might say hypocrisy, of a modern, high-tech France that worships his creed while rushing for convenience food and devouring Hollywood films. France, he insists, is less of a lost cause than such countries as America, because, outside Paris at least, people remain attached to old values.
"We have remained a culture where the time spent at the table is not just for consuming food. It's a social and family moment. There is a frightening statistic from America that the average time a family sits at the table is six minutes. That hasn't happened here yet."
As he launches his second book in a year, Bové has, of course, a few contradictions of his own. To the public, he is a humble paysan who spends time milking his beloved ewes on the Larzac plateau and struggling with local farmers against injustice. In reality, he has become a full-time personnage médiatique juggling TV appearances with near non-stop travel to citizens' summits from the Americas to East Asia.
Since January, he has managed to spend only a summer month on the farm, which he runs with a group of friends.
The travelling might have to stop if the appeal court at Montpellier confirms his jail sentence at a retrial in the New Year. Either way, the event is certain to produce another explosion of Bovémania.
Who really makes the decisions about what we eat? Jose Bove, the French farm workers' union leader, has been called the Wat Tyler of Europe after dismantling a McDonald's and being sent to prison. Now an international pro-democracy movement leader, he explains why food is political
Wednesday June 13, 2001
The first time I used the word "malbouffe" was in August 1999 in front of McDonald's in Millau, France [where many hundreds had gathered for a demonstration against the US-imposed sanctions against the ban on the import of hormone treated beef]. I initially used the word "shitfood" but changed it to avoid giving offence. Malbouffe implies eating any old thing, prepared any old way. The word has become universally accepted to express a confused unease, a mixture of guilt and accusation.
Malbouffe is completely uniform; it's food from nowhere, not even a degeneration of American culture. Everywhere the same labels, the same way of running the "restaurants". We did not want McDonald's to be seen as a prime target. It's merely a symbol of economic imperialism. It represents anonymous globalisation, with little relevance to real food.
For me, malbouffe means both the standardisation of food - the same taste from one end of the world to the other - and the choice of food associated with the use of hormones and GMOs, as well as the residue of pesticides and other things that can endanger health. It also involves industrialised agriculture, that is to say mass-produced food in the sense of industrialised pig-rearing, battery chickens and the like.
Nowadays, food is rarely eaten in anything like the state in which it leaves the farm. It's reconstructed - often several times over - to produce easily prepared, ready-made meals that can be consumed with little work in the home. The food industry regards the farmer as merely the supplier of raw commodities to meet the need of the manufacturers, rather than those of the consumer. The art of cooking and eating will soon not be passed on to new generations; this has resulted in a loss of family cohesion and of the ties that bind us to the land or place where we live.
[We got to this point because] since 1957, agricultural policy in Europe has been geared to low food prices and food self-sufficiency. Food security for Europe was an essential and legitimate political goal. The problem is that once self-sufficiency was achieved, the policies did not change. We could have maintained it at a European level without getting embroiled in excessive industrialisation whose only purpose was to produce for the sake of producing, with the EC responsible for finding outlets for over production, or for compensating producers
From the start, the modernisation of agriculture depended on a massive exodus from the countryside. The farmer who continued to use his own methods was made to feel guilty by the revolution in agricultural techniques. Knowledge came from outside and totally devalued the farmers' know-how. In the name of freedom and emancipation he had to make a clean break with his former practices. Instead of being a farmer, he became a producer, scrupulously applying new techniques under the guidance and control of technicians. The fundamental idea that underpinned the modernisation of agriculture was the same that applied in industry: intensification and specialisation of output. Industry became the reference point for measuring economic efficiency.
Specialisation was the key concept. Within the space of a few years we have moved to monoculture in entire regions. In Brittany, until the 1980s, a farm would produce milk and either pork or poultry; today it has a specialised output. Dairy farmers are no longer all-round farmers; they are specialists with little interest in crops and even less in soil use. Specialisation has put an end to local production of different crops and animals, which are adapted to the climate, soil and topography of the area.
The size of a plot of land has now been adapted to the machine, often to the detriment of the natural topography and the needs of proper drainage. Hedges that hindered the movement of machines and competed with crops were uprooted, and slopes were flattened. All this reshaping by bulldozers has resulted in a loss of biomass, has promoted soil erosion, reduced the humus layer and significantly decreased the flora and fauna. Agriculture has adopted a production-line organisation.
Today the production of food is determined by the global market. Means of transport and communications ensure that today's market is genuinely worldwide. As far as world leaders are concerned, the entire planet should submit to market laws. Our struggle is based on resistance to this develop ment. Health, education, culture, food - these are all issues that are close to everyone's heart. Today they are in danger of becoming commodities. Waves of opposition to this commodification can be felt in all corners of the world. There are two different views of society. One where the market with its own rules, runs everything, and where all human activity takes place with capital as the bottom line; the other view is one where people and their political institutions, not to mention issues such as the environment and culture, are at the forefront of people's concerns.
We now have a worldwide dictatorship [governed by multinationals]. If you are not in the market place, you're a nobody. We no longer live under conditions of traditional management and inter-state conflicts, but in the middle of a war between private powers with the market as the battleground. To understand the extent of this, all you have to do is look at how the traffic in money makes more profit than traditional production and trading activities combined. Today, money works by itself. This has produced a new breed of parasite; vampires thirsty for money. Money addicts.
Seattle and the demonstrations against the WTO showed the emergence of a young radical movement that brought together dozens of groups. It was a convergence of movements - unions, ecologists, consumers, civil and gay rights activists - with the countries of the south.
We reject the global [trade] model dictated by the multinationals. Let's go back to agriculture; less than 5% of agricultural production goes on to the world market. Yet those responsible for that 5% of international trade dominate the other 95% of the production that is destined for national consumption (or neighbouring countries) and force this sector to submit to their logic. It's a totalitarian exercise. Agriculture should not be reduced to mere trade. People have the right to be able to feed themselves and take precautionary measures on food as they see fit.
[Despite Seattle] the WTO is still alive and well. You can't put an end to it with one demonstration. Our objective was to stop the extension of the WTO's powers. Why should the global market escape the rule of international law or human rights conventions passed by the UN? The WTO has arrogated the functions of legislature, executive and judiciary solely for itself. In the 18th century such an anti-democratic concentration of power provoked the French revolution.
We want the WTO to adopt the human rights charter. To break the monopoly of power, we have demanded an international court of justice, composed of professional lawyers, independent of the WTO. It would hear appeals by countries dissatisfied with WTO decisions.
The WTO isn't going to change overnight. We're in for a long struggle. We're working towards setting up a permanent watchdog in Geneva, seat of the WTO. This centre will provide information for all those mobilising on the issue of world trade. We want the WTO to know it is under scrutiny.
I call this the Dracula principle. Dracula, the vampire, can't bear the light. We want to open all the windows on the WTO.
The strength of the global movement [that is gathering around the world] is precisely that it differs from place to place, while building confidence between people. Today, people mobilise without wanting to take over state institutions, and maybe this is a new way of conducting politics. The future lies in changing daily life by acting on an international level.
The multinationals take decisions with complete disregard for nation states, displaying contempt for the political system. That requires new responses, new forms of militancy. This is what happened in Seattle, Millau, Prague and elsewhere.
What's important is the educative value of an action - whether it encourages public participation. Actions that exclude people are failures. Actions that change the ideas of those who take part as well as those who observe them are successes. Millau and Seattle showed the force of direct action. Legitimacy is a prerequisite. We had that on our side in Millau with the ban on roquefort.
Often illegal action is required to make a case. If the case is fair, the public will support it. Action is collective, but responsibility has to be assumed individually - including going to prison, if that is necessary. In order to win you have to be sure there will be solidarity with your action. In any case, if there's no hope of winning, there's no point in starting the fight.
The Bové guide to good farming
1 Distribution of production to allow the maximum number of people to work as farmers; the right to produce includes the right to work and the right to an income.
2 Worldwide solidarity with all farmers.
3 Respect for nature, to ensure its use for future generations.
4 Efficient use of resources, protecting those that are scarce.
5 Transparency in all areas of agricultural production.
6 Ensuring the safety and good quality of produce.
7 Maximum autonomy for farmers.
8 Partnership with others living in the countryside.
9 Maintaining diversity in animal and plant stock.
10 Always respectful of the long-term and global context.
These are edited extracts of José Bové and Francois Dufour's book The World Is Not For Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food