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A World Struggle Is Underway
An interview with Jose Bove
Jeffress (with Jean-Paul Mayanobe)
José Bové is a French activist/farmer whose first fight was against the French government in the 1970s as one of a few hundred sheep farmers in the Larzac region that attempted and finally succeeded in keeping that area of France from becoming a military training ground. When the Confederation Paysanne, a second, more grassroots farmers union, was organized in the late 1980s, Bové became one of its three principal spokespersons. He took part in destroying GMO rice plants at the Nerac research lab early in 1999, then helped in the dismantling of a McDonald's in Millau in August of that same year. The French courts sentenced him to three months in jail, which is on appeal. The following interview took place at Bové's home near Millau, France, on April 3, 2001.
JEFFRESS: August 12, 1999, you and a group of farmers from your French union, the Confederation Paysanne, dismantled a McDonald's under construction just outside the city of Millau near Larzac. It was this action that brought you international attention. Would you talk about it?
BOVé: There were three or four of us who sat around in March 1999 talking about doing something symbolic, but there would have been no reason for the McDonalds protest if it hadn't been for the outrageous tariff placed on French cheese by the Americans because the French refused to let outlawed hormone-treated beef be imported from the States. The tariff meant that we lost our cheese market in the States. There was no political law against it, nothing to stop it, so one solution was to attack McDonalds as a symbol of malbouffe (bad food).
We wanted to do this protest in broad daylight, with a large group of people, a non-violent action, but symbolically very strong, and up front with the authorities. We were careful to explain ahead of time to the police that our objective was to dismantle the McDonald's. They informed their superiors and the police chief. Then an officer from the police department called us to say that he was going to ask the manager at McDonalds for a sign of some kind so we could destroy that, that it be more symbolic. We told him: “Are you kidding? That's nuts. We're going to dismantle the doors and windows.”
The police department didn't think that the protest called for a big police patrol. We did ask them to be there to watch over things as we emptied the construction site, in case there were any workers or tools that were in the way. Everything went like we thought it would. The only strange thing was the presence of ten or so police officers in street clothes carrying cameras. The protest went along and everybody, including the kids, helped dismantle the interior of the building: partitions, some doors, electrical outlets, and sheet metal on the roof that was nailed down but which came up easily, because it was part of a kit, decorative stuff. It was really a light weight piece of construction, the whole place.
Everything was put into two tractor wagons, while some people repainted the roof of the restaurant. Both wagons were full, one of them a grain dumpster. Some of the kids leaving the site climbed into the dumpster with pieces of wood in their hands to pretend to play drums, and we all took off in a parade toward police headquarters in Millau. There was clapping as we rode through the city; people thought it was funny and fun. We unloaded the wagons in front of the police station. It was great weather, everyone had a good time, and the party finally ended up in the outdoor café's in Millau.
You went to jail?
After the action, McDonald's filed a complaint and four of us were put in jail. To show that we didn't think it was any big deal to dismantle a fast food place, I went on vacation right after the event. Two days later, when I heard what happened to the other four I came back and turned myself in at the police station, which caused a stir. The judge demanded bail for all five of us to be released, something that is unheard of in France. You just don't ask union members to post bail to get out of jail. The other four agreed to pay the bail so they could leave, but the judge insisted on keeping me for 15 days because I had another charge against me—destroying GMO rice plants at the Nerac research lab. At the end of 15 days they said I could go if I posted bail. I refused on principle and stayed where I was. I was there eight days more. People from all over the world sent money, including people from the United States.
When the French press interviewed Americans about why they were so willing to help, they said that they thought it was a good idea to criticize McDonald's. We were on the front page of the New York Times. This was not an anti-American action; it was anti-malbouffe. We were determined never to be trapped by the logic of being anti-American. This is a fight against free trade global capitalism. It's about the logic of a certain economic system, not an American system. It can be a struggle against any country, this one or that one. It's not against those who have an American passport.
It's surprising that there were those who saw this dismantling of McDonald's as violent, given all the real violence in the world.
Well, certainly there are different kinds of violence. Like the guys here in France who recently destroyed the toll booths on the freeway because their products weren't selling well enough. That was stupid, idiotic. On the other hand, when the wine growers from the Herault district got together to protest imported Spanish wine that's ruining their business and they opened the spigots on the incoming wine caskets and emptied the wine into the streets, that didn't bother me at all. That's something concrete, a popular action, an act that has a direct relationship to the problem. In Seattle, when Americans asked me about acts of destruction—things I didn't have anything to do with, by the way—I told them it was the Americans who led the way in all this. They were the ones who threw the tea overboard in Boston Harbor because they were fed up with taxation without representation. That was an American example.
If you want to move the world you have to change the direction of things, which is what happened when the French stormed the Bastille. Of course at any given moment of history, there will be those conservative forces who won't want things to change. If a bunch of people went down and started to dismantle the Bastille today, there'd be those who would come along and want to know, Hey guys, what are you doing?
Is there a point at which the French government will get fed up with the trouble you're causing and put you or some of you in jail for a while? You were recently sentenced to three months in prison.
The movement has taken on such importance they really can't go back. The whole society is behind what's happening. What happened is that I am bringing up a political issue and politically it can't be solved, so they give it to the justice department. But they can't solve it, either, so it gets bounced back to the political arena because it's a political problem.
You've been an activist for some time. Could you talk about Larzac and your role in that movement?
Larzac is an area in Central France between Millau and Lodève made up of a huge limestone plateau, sparsely populated by sheep farmers. In 1970, the locals learned that the area, much of it owned by the government and used for military training since 1905, was to be expanded from 6,000 to 34,000 acres, which would have meant the dislocation of 500 farmers and 15,000 sheep. I was part of a group of activists who took up the cause of the farmers and I finally moved to the area with my wife and became a sheep farmer in 1975. Throughout the 1970s there were protests and events and finally, when Mitterand was elected in 1980 and kept a campaign promise, the courts annulled a large number of the expropriations. In 1985 a contract was signed between the government and the people of Larzac allowing them to rent and work 15,000 government owned acres.
Do you think McDonald's might one day leave France for good, given the trouble you and the Confederation have caused the company?
What will make McDonald's leave is financial loss. For this to happen people have to stop eating at McDonald's. For that, there would have to be a lot of bad publicity. The fact is, the restaurant chain is favored by the government. The restaurant tax that McDonald's pays is only 5.5 percent whereas the small restaurant owners have to pay 19.6 percent. But because of mad cow and hoof and mouth disease, McDonald's has been hurt, as well as the bad publicity around the employee strikes in Paris.
You were in Seattle for the WTO protest in 1999. What were your impressions?
Absolutely non-violent. Nothing happened in Seattle. But in terms of size, as far as having a protest, there are so many here in France that the Seattle protest was not so surprising. But for the States it was impressive. Two things were especially interesting: the unions (maybe 40 or 45,000 members) joined together with young people to block the conference, occupying all of downtown, so there was this feeling of a street fair. It was peaceful and fun; the only thing the media had to focus on were the 20 or so people who broke some windows. There was no real damage, nothing more than what would happen at a Confederation rally in France in Montauban [a town of 50,000 in the south].
Were farmers in Seattle aware of the dismantling of McDonald's in Millau?
Yes. Quite a few. Actually there's a lot of political consciousness in the States about the dangers of free market capitalism. There are small unions in North America that defend the little farmers.
You were in Brazil at the Porto Alegre conference in February and in Mexico at the end of the Zapatista march across the country. It's clear you are encouraging international solidarity against global capitalism. What is the best way for concerned Americans to help in this effort?
To be as many as possible especially in Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas Conference [April 20–22]. They're trying to unify some of the biggest countries into an enormous zone of free trade, doing an end run around each country. If this unification plan works it will be gigantic, total domination by the multinationals. This in spite of the fact that the idea has failed with the European Union. Jospin [French Prime Minister] has refused an equal cultural exchange with other countries, preferring to limit foreign cultural imports in favor of French art forms. Now the Americans are trying a different tack in Quebec. They want a market where it isn't quality that sells but the stuff with the most advertisement. This free trade zone strategy was started by Bush the father and is being continued by Bush the son.
Why do you think mad cow disease has not broken out in the States?
There is talk about something called “vache couché,” which may just be another name for mad cow disease. There are a certain number of epidemics, including one among caribou in Canada. Given that the same kind of animal feed has been used in the United States, it's not impossible that mad cow exits over there. Scientists have their suspicions about diseases that resemble it.
The Big One, by Michael Moore, has been very popular in France. Have you been influenced by Michael Moore's films? You seem to have some of his style of confrontation, his humor.
I'm all for what he's doing, but I don't think I've been influenced by him, not really. In France, the whole effort is about community. With Moore, he as an individual creates the power, the force. In France, we function as part of a social movement. I am just one of three spokespeople for the Confederation. Moore on the other hand speaks for himself. But he's interesting.
His films show that each individual can be an activist, acting alone, right? Don't you encourage that within the Confederation?
Of course. Like with the closure of the Danone factories [French-based multinational that makes cookies of various sorts including LU, Little Schoolboy, Pim's; bottled water: Volvic, Slaveta, etc., and milk products such as yogurt, Gervais, Peitits Suisses] and the consumer boycotts that have followed. It's up to each person not to buy LU products. That's the way it should be. That kind of civil disobedience is perfect, things people can do in their daily life to fight against injustice. But this is new in France, in the last two or three years. People are just beginning to realize that what happens in their daily life is just as important as their professional life. Everyone has the capacity to react privately to the market, like not buying GMO products or demanding that LU products be excluded from the school lunch program.
The French founded an international organization three years ago, Attac [Association pour la taxation des transactions financières pour l'aide aux citoyens], based on the Tobin Tax Initiative created by the American James Tobin. Do you think an organization like Attac is useful?
What's interesting about Attac is the collective pedagogy. The Tobin Tax Initiative is really just a pretext for talking about fiscal matters in general. It's a way to raise consciousness about an economic system, a way to acknowledge that there is a problem. This can be really helpful, even though there are those who say that Attac is not radical enough, that it's not going to change the world. But the point of any organization is to have something people can rally behind. If you're all alone out there and no one is following, that doesn't work. Martyrs don't advance things very far.
Aren't there internal tensions among leftist groups in France (Attac, the socialists, the communists, the ultra liberals) that could cause the present social movement to fall apart?
The Confederation is going to continue to function as a counter movement to the power structure that exists, but not part of the government, as such, in any way. It doesn't do any good to create another political party. Government problems and ours are not the same. The FNSEA [Fédération nationale des syndicats d'exploitants agricoles—the majority agricultural union in France] has a chamber in the legislature, but it has to play politics and is weakened that way. It's better to have a strong union than to have a chamber because the union has much more power with the farmers.
We're in this struggle for the long term. The best thing is political networking all around the world. Not everyone, of course, will be fighting the same battles at the same time, but there will be moments when we will all come together in agreement on a certain point, like what happened in Seattle. Any division among the networking groups is really secondary.
You joined the Zapatista march across the country. What are your thoughts on the Mexican struggle?
The Indian fight has been around for a long time. When we were battling in Larzac we met with members of the Mexican Indian movement. But the Zapatistas have made it possible to form a collective movement. There are a million Indians in Mexico who don't exist politically and now all of the various minority groups are rallying around the Indian question. There were ultimately 400,000 people who joined the march.
Could this same sort of snowball effect happen in France?
It's actually what did happen in Millau last summer. More than 100,000 people showed up for the weekend of June 30, from all sorts of different movements, catalyzed by the Confederation. This kind of rally is understandable, given all the agricultural and workplace traumas that are happening.
Do you think that the GMO fight is the big one now?
In September I was in India to help organize an enormous protest in South India where the transnationals had organized conferences to try to introduce the idea of GMO plants. The best way to fight GMO's is for each country to prevent the entrance of GMO products inside their individual territories. It's a fundamental struggle and one that can be won. The transnationals can lose a lot of money. For instance, in Europe, the fact that we've demanded and gotten a two-year moratorium on GMO research and production has meant the transnationals have lost an enormous market. It's cost them a fortune. They had developed various varieties of GMO's, ready to put on the market, and now they can't do it. All their efforts are wasted because people aren't going to buy the products. This creates an enormous problem. Also the fact that they can't continue with their research because they know that people are going to destroy the experimental plants.
This is a world struggle that is underway, that has taken off, and it will only get bigger. In Brazil, there are states that have forbidden the importation of GMO products. That's really important.
What do you say to those who argue that without GMOs much of the world will starve?
It's the stupidest argument that exists. It goes against reality. There is more than enough land to feed everyone. But instead of growing food to feed people around the world, crops are raised to feed animals and then shipped abroad. Not to mention hundreds and hundreds of acres of uncultivated land owned by the wealthy, while the poor have no access to the soil. Quantity is not a problem. There's enough soy in Canada and the United States to feed the world but it's going to animals. What's more, where GMOs are concerned, there is no proof that they increase productivity beyond that of regular farming. GMOs are just a way of privatizing agriculture, a way of keeping farmers from having control over their own seeds—it's a way to make agriculture as profitable as possible.
You've been quoted as saying that agro-business got a final boost in England under Thatcher with privatization and lack of government controls—which led eventually to mad cow disease and hoof and mouth. Do you think it's possible to stop agro-business now that it's got such a hold in most European countries?
This is a European problem. All the countries must work together against malbouffe and towards quality. That's what PAC (Political Agriculture Community within the European Union) has got to do, fight to move agriculture toward a respect for the environment. This is also where agricultural research is important. It has to move away from being an arm of the multinationals, away from short term thinking and towards, instead, a long term vision, towards organic farming. Research institutes need to be created where the research that is done is environmentally sound, unlike the NIRA in France which works with the transnationals.
Another issue of course is that the Eastern countries are quickly moving towards joining the European Union. PAC has to be ready to help these countries create their own agricultural markets, help them integrate by 2004 or so. Agro-business, with its over-production and its inevitable reliance on exportations, must not be used to feed these agriculturally poor countries and thus destroy their agricultural markets, including those outside Europe. Each country has to develop its own agriculture so it won't be dependent on another country and thus lose its freedom. When Americans try to produce for the whole world, exportation becomes a political weapon. Poor countries import food so cheaply it destroys all incentive to create local markets. In this regard, the European Union is for subsidies within Europe, but never as a part of exportation which causes such artificially low prices that poor countries can't compete.
Of course, this isn't just a European problem. The small farmers in America farm with 40 milk cows, doing it the old fashioned way. They can't compete if the price of milk gets unreasonably low; the small farmer just disappears. Subsidies in the States are for the big guys, for agro-business.
Now that you are speaker of a national movement don't you draw all sorts of people to you who will want you to support them, sometimes at the expense of your own principles?
Of course, there are more and more people around which means more people I don't agree with, but I can work with them, try to convince them little by little of my position. I don't mind being criticized. I never said I was right about everything. You just have to be clear in your own mind what you think and what you are trying to do, then you can work with others. It's easy to be critical of everything and sit in a corner by yourself with your own truth, but that doesn't get you very far.
Lots of people criticize me. There are those who said I was wrong to be on the Michel Drucker show [Drucker: a Sunday TV talk show host who moderates “Vivement Dimanche” (Sunday Live) with invited guests who are asked to invite their favorite big name friends] because it's “show biz.” But I chose all the people who came on as guests with me and they talked about things that I think are important like the Confederation, the conditions in the prisons, consumer society. There were 1.5 million people watching it.
The star image is looked down on by the French, but you have to be able to convince people of your position. I learned this 30 years ago during the Larzac battle. We won because we were able to rally people through media images and symbolic protests. We galvanized popular feeling around the issue. If you don't find a way to reach people, you can be as right as you want about something, but you're not going to change anything. The purpose of a political struggle is to win.
It's true that the Confederation has had a change of image along with me, and so it's a new ballgame. We have to invent reactions to things day-by-day because this has never happened before. Political events have created this situation in the last couple of years.
Doesn't someone have to stand out, be the person the movement is identified with?
Yes. There is a moment when someone has to be the bridge between the movement and public opinion. The trick is to remain a counter force but at the same time convince more and more people of your position.
Is the American dream the model for globalization?
I think there are a lot of countries and people in the world that resist anti-capitalist globalization, which is different from globalization, which we're not against. Because we're here in the west where Internet logic reigns, we think the Internet is transforming life everywhere, but before you have the Internet you have to have electricity and a telephone. This isn't the case in a lot of places. If they do have television, the films are not necessarily American. In India, they're watching Indian tele-films.
No, I think it has to do with a model that is trying to be imposed through transnational logic. It's not simply American. It's a model that's much larger than that, one that comes with a certain economic way of thinking. Culturally, it's true that the Americans have created a certain model, but look at McDonald's in the States. It's not a symbol of affluence. The poorest of the poor eat at McDonald's. They eat there or go to the soup kitchens. It's not a model of high class culture, not by a long shot. It represents the worst of the malbouffe.
Today, this model of free trade is not something that is viewed positively; more and more, people are resisting the model. Z