José Bové

A French farmer who dismantled a McDonald's.

| November-December 2001

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.

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