The accused threads his way up the steps of the stone Palais de Justice in the ancient French city of Montpellier. He has receding sandy hair and a comically long walrus mustache, wears a little yellow neck scarf, and clutches a pipe. Muscular young activists in yellow T-shirts escort him past dozens of aggressive TV cameramen, all jockeying for a better angle. Halfway up the stairs, the defendant turns, smiles into the cameras, and gazes over the several hundred protesters gathered on the street below. He gives a thumbs-up and pumps his fist. The crowd goes wild. Their hero is, with the possible exception of President Jacques Chirac, France’s most famous political personality. His name is José Bové. He makes cheese.
It is the morning of February 15, 2001, and Bové, 47, and his nine (virtually unnoticed) co-defendants are appealing their sentences for criminal vandalism convictions, charges resulting from a 1999 protest in which a McDonald’s under construction just outside the farming village of Millau was disassembled, bolt by bolt, and carted away. Bové, sentenced to three months in prison, is unapologetic. He took apart the McDonald’s to protest American imperialism, its trade policies, and the general, noxious spread of malbouffe. Malbouffe, Bové has said, “implies eating any old thing, prepared in any old way . . . both the standardization of food like McDonald’s––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 [genetically modified organisms], as well as the residues of pesticides and other things that can endanger health.”
Needless to say, the McDonald’s Corporation was not amused—and is still not amused. “We are so the wrong target,” says company spokesman Brad Trask from global headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. “Our French outlets are virtually entirely locally sourced and Bové knows that quite well. You’ll find no better supporter of local agriculture than us.” Besides, Trask sniffs, “Bové is a gentleman farmer who got his farm by squatting and falling into it.”
The McDonald’s dismantling was a perfect media event. There was Bové on television, lugging around a broken McDonald’s sign bigger than he was. There was the parade of farm vehicles loaded with debris, which was gently deposited on the lawn of local government offices. There were women cheerfully passing out locally made Roquefort snacks to passersby.
“You see,” Bruno Rebelle, director of Greenpeace France, says, “in the United States, food is fuel. Here, it’s a love story.”
Since the storming of the McDonald’s, “Bovémania” has spread around the world. During the 1999 anti–World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, Bové delivered fiery speeches and gave away 500 kilos of contraband Roquefort cheese smuggled in from France. (The U.S. government imposed a steep tariff on Roquefort and 76 other French farm products in retaliation for France’s restrictions on beef from the United States with hormone additives). Last year, he traveled to India, Turkey, and Wisconsin (cheese capital of the USA), to rouse farmers against globalization. Last January, he led hundreds of Brazilian campesinos on a midnight raid to uproot genetically engineered soybean plants on farmland owned by the Monsanto Corporation.
Bové’s free-market enemies have dismissed him as a mercenary, a poseur, and a nationalistic xenophobe. But wielding a campy blend of folksiness and intellectualism, along with an unerring instinct for political theater, he has elevated the debate over food purity and the importance of traditional agriculture in France to the highest levels of the national agenda.
Bové, who has been making powerful enemies throughout his adult life, is indeed more complicated than the gruff peasant he projects. The son of two crop scientists, Bové lived in Berkeley from the age of 3 until he was 7 while his parents studied microbiology at the University of California. In 1971 he dropped out of Bordeaux University after a month. “I thought I had other things to do,” Bové says—things like campaigning for disarmament and hanging around Bordeaux reading Thoreau and Gandhi. It was antimilitary activism that drew José to the Larzac region of southern France. In the fields outside the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, native ewes graze native grasses, and the cheese made from their milk is infused with the venerable fungus Penicillium roqueforti and aged for months in limestone caves.
In the 1970s, a large swath of this sacred cheeseland lay in the path of a proposed army base expansion. José joined local farmers fighting to save their land. In 1976, he moved to Larzac full time to squat on land purchased by the army. By the time the government gave up its plans, in 1981, José had, with four partners, a robust flock of sheep producing fine Roquefort milk. With the army off their backs, the Larzac farmers turned their attention to other issues facing their region, and in 1987 Bové and fellow farmer-activist François DuFour helped found the Confédération Paysanne, the small farmers’ union. For the next decade, the new union created co-ops and fought increasing use of the hormone bovine somatotrophine (BST) in milk.
In 1996, as the mad cow crisis roiled Europe, Bové’s genius for symbolism reached new heights. He led Gertrude and Laurette, a cow and her calf, to the steps of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris to dramatize how normal farm animals would be rendered obsolete if the import of hormone-fed meat was permitted. But it was the McDonald’s incident that made Bové known far outside his home region. He wrote a book (with his union colleague François DuFour) that sold 100,000 copies in France and is now being translated into nine languages, including Turkish, Japanese, Korean, and Catalan. The U.S. version, The World Is Not for Sale, was published by Verso Books this summer.
Bové’s agricultural solutions are extensions of his philosophy of self-reliance and the French tradition of terroir (“of the earth”), meaning the very essence of the soil which, as with wine, infuses an agricultural product. “Each area in the world should feed its own population, not the whole world,” he says.
The Montpellier district courtroom is small. To the left sit the McDonald’s Ten, their army of attorneys, and their families and friends. Strains of festive zydeco and reggae waft in from the plaza next door, where the cow-costumed, sign-waving crowd will soon swell to 15,000. The defense intends to paint the farmers as the conscience of the nation, citizens whose acts of civil disobedience, while perhaps technically illegal, are nevertheless forgivable cries of truth in an otherwise ruthless and technocratic world. Bové is the first to take the stand. “McDonald’s,” Bové says, “is the symbol of standardization of food. What we did was like the Boston Tea Party.”
“McDonald’s is a French investment,” the chief justice argues, “with local jobs, local meat, local produce.” Then he switches tack. “What did you think of the headlines saying you sacked the place?”
Bové: “It was an exaggeration. We didn’t sack it. We dismantled it.”
Judge: “What does ‘dismantle’ mean? When you took off the tiles, some of them broke.”
Bové: “What did it mean when they dismantled the Bastille?” The crowd guffaws.
To Bové—and indeed, most Frenchmen—the debate is about nothing less than cultural survival: Will France become more like the rest of the world, or will the rest of the world become more like France?
Over half the food we blithely buy in U.S. supermarkets contains genetically modified organisms, most of them unlabeled. A third of our corn and half our soybeans contain cross-species genes. French food, on the other hand, rarely contains genetically modified ingredients, and if it does it must be identified. More than 60 percent of French markets have agreed not to sell such food at all.
But while the French have an inherent distrust of inauthenticity, they are equally suspicious of showmanship.
“Bové is serious, but like everyone who becomes a media symbol, he becomes quite ridiculous at the same time,” says Paris food writer Benediot Beauge. “What is it Bové believes in?” asks Antoine Jacobsohn, a Franco-American who sits on the board of the Museum of Vegetable Culture, which does exist, in Paris. “Targeting the McDonald’s was a good idea, but . . . I’d like to see him promoting an image of terroir, not just destroying things.” Although, thinking for a moment, he adds, “I liked it when he pissed on imported wheat.”
In March, Bové was ordered to serve his three months for the McDonald’s affair, a sentence he will appeal again. “Jail is jail,” Bové says from his cell phone on his way to Sweden to address its farmers’ union. “If I have to go, I have to go.”
In the meantime, he has space-age travel plans. He figured prominently in protests at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April and Genoa in July. He’ll hit Qatar in November if the WTO meeting that follows up the disastrous 1999 session in Seattle is not canceled. Then maybe West Africa, where he has fans. The sheep farmer opposing globalization has become a global celebrity.
From Outside (June 2001). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (12 issues) from Box 7785, Red Oak, IA 51591.