The outpouring of support in France for farmer-activist José Bové, now being tried for his part in wrecking a McDonald's construction site in the town of Millau last August, has taken American journalists largely by surprise.
First there was the size of the crowd, estimated at more than 40,000, that rallied on the square outside the courthouse in Millau, where the trial opened July 1. Shopkeepers had shuttered their doors in fear of "another Seattle", and police had surrounded the completed McDonald's outlet. However, the mood of the gathering -- taking its cues from Bové's own avuncular cheerfulness -- was festive and orderly. The ten defendants arrived pulled in a cart, in the manner of condemned prisoners being taken to the guillotine -- a reference missed by most American journalists.
Even more baffling to the American press is the breadth of support for Bové throughout France, as revealed in a CSA-Le Parisien poll released June 30. Many French disagree with his methods, but most share his opposition to American corporate hegemony.
The American press, which has largely ignored events leading up to this trial, has scrambled belatedly to deconstruct the its larger meaning. The New York Times gave the whole thing an anti-American spin, headlining its coverage, "French Turn Vandal Into Hero Against US," and claiming that Bové was a "little-known farmer and union official until last August." The Washington Post took a more flippant tone, punning repeatedly on "Big Mac Attack" and dismissing the legitimacy of the protest. In general, our media have responded programmatically, failing to place the French antipathy for McDonalds in its larger perspective.
Bové and nine other peasants from the Confédération Paysanne, the farmer's union which he co-founded, had driven their tractors through the half-completed McDonald's outlet to protest the punitive tariffs enacted by the US a month earlier on foie gras and Roquefort cheese and other European farm products. The tariffs, sanctioned by the World Trade Organization, were in retaliation for the European Union's refusal to accept American hormone-treated beef.
Farmers like Bové are caught in the middle, their livelihoods threatened by the machinations of huge corporations operating through the WTO and other bureaucracies established to promote global trade. But the farmers' agenda goes well beyond economic self-interest, to fundamental issues of culture and democratic choice within the global economy.
José Bové is not only a sheep farmer, of course; he is a committed trade unionist and environmental activist with a sophisticated sense of symbolism. He may have learned some showmanship growing up in Berkeley, California, where his French parents were studying during the 1960s, but he moved back to France in 1968, joining the back-to-the-land movement, -- which attracted a strong following among "sixty-eighters" exiting Paris for the south of France -- and his sensibilities are thoroughly French.
He was arrested in the 1970s for efforts to prevent the building of a huge army base in southern France. (The project was successfully halted, after a nearly ten-year struggle.) Later he became involved in Greenpeace protests against nuclear testing in French Polynesia. But it has been the recent and well-publicized attacks on McDonalds -- or "MacDo", as it is known in France -- that have captured headlines in the French press and elevated the pipe-smoking Bové to the status of a pop icon. The attacks have been nonviolent, but trenchant in their symbolism -- consisting in one case of his dumping three tons of manure on a McDonald's floor. On another occasion, farmers protested by occupying a McDonalds with the chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks that figure prominently in local indigenous agriculture. Another McDonald's outlet was filled with apples. In Seattle last November, Bové joined the WTO protest by destroying a cask of his own Roquefort cheese in front of a McDonald's.
Support for Bové has grown steadily. So high is Bové's profile these days that when he showed up in Davos, Switzerland, last January to protest the WTO, eyewitnesses reported that his bus was half filled with journalists struggling to get a piece of "Bovémania." President Jacques Chirac made a point of shaking hands with Bové on national television, and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin invited Bové and other representatives of the Confédération Paysanne to meet with him to discuss their views on agriculture and trade. The union, which Bové co-founded, is now the second largest farmers' union in France, having swelled from about 10,000 members in 1987 to over 40,000, and is still growing. For the first time in decades, small farmers -- long neglected in France, as in the US, and severely punished everywhere in the world by the new agribusiness-oriented trade agreements -- are perceived these days as stewards of French culture, as well as the land.
"We are all peasants in the ethical sense of the term," Chirac was said to have mused at a plowing contest last September in the wheat fields of Champagne.
Why target McDonald's? The American press seems studiously obtuse on this point, trivializing French resistance to fast-food and failing to acknowledge the larger issues of power and local control. As Bové puts it, the struggle is between two ways of farming and eating: "real food and real farmers," as opposed to "industrial agriculture and corporate control."
"Look," Bové said in an interview published last month in the British publication, The Ecologist, "Cooking is culture. All over the world. Every nation, every region, has its own food cultures. Food and farming define people. We cannot let it all go, to be replaced with hamburgers. People will not let it happen."
But to understand the rich symbolism contained in the present trial, it is necessary to remember that Bové was arrested two years ago for leading a group of 120 farmers from CP in destroying genetically modified (GM) "Bt" corn belonging to the huge Novartis corporation. In addressing the judge at the subsequent trial, held in 1998 in the town of Nerac, Bové acknowledged the seriousness of his crime, but said his only regret was that he "wasn't able to destroy more of it." What he did was illegal, he said, but he was given no other choice. "When was there a public debate on genetically modified organisms? When were farmers and consumers asked what they think about this? Never!"
"The obligation to import bovine somatotropin meat from the USA is a good example of this," he said. "The Panel of the WTO, the true policeman of world trade, decides what's 'good' for both countries and their people, without consultation or a right of appeal."
He went on to discuss the multiple long-term environmental risks associated with Bt corn, and ridiculed the assumption that the burden of proof should fall on producers and consumers to prove scientifically that the new GM products were dangerous. "Even the director of Novartis recognizes that a 'zero risk' simply doesn't exist," he said to the court. "The problems arising today with certain agricultural practices (such as animal-based feeds, the effects on bee populations, etc.) only serve to reinforce our caution when dealing with the sorcererís apprentices."
He concluded by challenging the culture of choicelessness engendered by the globalized economy -- the practice of deliberately mixing together non-manipulated and genetically modified soy when they arrive in France, so there was no way of tracing the GM product. At risk, he said, is the future of farming. "Either we accept intensive production and the huge reduction in the number of farmers in the sole interests of the World Market, or we create a farmer's agriculture for the benefit of everyone."
He called GM corn "the symbol of a system of agriculture and a type of society which I refuse to accept. Genetically modified maize is purely the product of technology, where the means become the end. Political choices are swept aside by the power of money."
The 1998 trial catapulted the issue of GM products into the spotlight, along with Bové and his farmer's union. More than any one person, Bové was instrumental in mobilizing public opinion and getting the French government to reverse its stand on GM products; today France is now at the forefront of the EU's resistance to US pressures to accept the products of its huge agribusiness interests.
Bové's choice of McDonald's as his next target forged an implicit link between the fast-food giant and these larger issues of local control. The McDonald's presence in France touches a nerve that goes well beyond the golden arches. With 804 outlets in France at last count, McDonalds is the most visible embodiment of the larger process of McDonaldization that threatens more than French food.
Sociologist George Ritzer, in his book, The McDonaldization of Society, applies the term to a wide variety of enterprises, from Toys R Us to Home Depot, that are replicated identically in the interests of efficiency and absolute predictability. "Efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control through nonhuman technology can be thought of as the basic components of a rational system," he observes. "However, rational systems inevitably spawn irrationalities." Ritzer cites as one example the degree of control over employees required to produce identical experiences for customers.
This enforcement of uniformity was brought home last March when Remi Millet, a 23-year-old cashier of a McDonald's outlet in the south of France, was fired for giving five cheeseburgers to a homeless woman. Millet contends he was giving away his own food; the cheeseburgers were earned through a McDonalds "point" system designed to reward employees for taking unpopular shifts or performing special services. But he was fired anyway, for breaking the company's rigid work-rules.
The incident made a splash in France, confirming people's worst suspicions about the inhumanity of US-style capitalism. Millet was widely interviewed on television. He was contacted by José Bové, and invited to appear at the forthcoming meeting of the EU parliament. Now he is working in Paris with a group organizing fast-food workers. He is also among those lobbying for a subsidy of traditional cuisine that would allow young diners -- from ages five to 21 -- to eat for fifty francs at a good (two-star, in Paris) restaurant.
Since all the flap, Millet told this writer that MacDo has done its best to vilify him. An official letter from his old boss enumerated thirty complaints, including drug dealing -- which Millet says is a complete fabrication. Denis Hennequin, Chairman of McDonalds France, a subsidiary of McDonalds Corporation, has reportedly brought pressure to get the EU to cancel the invitation, and has written letters to mayors all around France in an effort to discredit the fired cashier.
In April, a month after Millet's firing, McDonalds was on French television again, this time in Brittany, when an unidentified bomber rigged three pounds of dynamite to a kitchen timer set to go off at night outside the drive-through of a McDonald's. The timer failed, and an employee who showed up for the breakfast shift was killed. Investigations have focussed on a separatist group, the Breton Revolutionary Army.
José Bové was quick at the time to decry the violence of the Brittany attack. He called it misguided and "imbecilic."
However the prosecutor at the present trial in Millau has tried to link Bové to the attack indirectly, suggesting that by turning McDonalds into a symbolic target, Bové may have contributed to an atmosphere in which violent or unstable individuals might follow his lead. The accusation was roundly booed by observers in the courtroom and by the thousands of Bové supporters outside, once they were informed.
Eyewitnesses report that when Bové came to the courthouse window and asked for quiet, so that the windows in the stuffy building could be kept open, the huge but orderly crowd fell into an impressive silence.
The judge is expected to hand down a ruling by September 13. In the meantime the trial, even in recess, continues to serve as a forum for energetic debate. Whether the larger symbolism will be appreciated or even understood in our own country -- where McDonaldization is the rule, and McNews is king -- remains to be seen.
David Morse is a freelance writer based in Storrs, Conn., and author of a novel, The Iron Bridge (Harcourt Brace, 1998).