La manif

Farmers demonstrate in Paris

“Tu vas à la manif?”

The first time someone asked me this, I remember thinking: it sounds like fun. Somehow the formality and seriousness of publicly demonstrating for a cause is lost in the cute short form: La manif’. And the reality is that it’s a bit of a party.

The French have raised the demonstration to something of an art form. This comprises a range of behaviours, from going out on strike to peaceably demonstrating in the streets, or resisting in more subversive ways. When it escalates, you end up with public disobedience, armed protests and violence against various police forces.

It always seemed strange to me that la Fête du Travail, held each year on the 1st of May, inevitably features a massive demonstration of labour unions. In North America, we celebrate our Labo(u)r Day on the first Monday in September with a barbeque and a few beers. The French take to the streets to remind their bosses that they are ready to strike at any time.

Of course, not everyone goes. I remember my Belle-mère telling me years ago that she agreed with her colleagues at Air France for going out on strike, rhyming off an entire list of rights and wrongs worth fighting for. When I asked if she was going to join them at the manif, however, she said no, she didn’t want to be seen at such an event. Besides, she hated crowds and was looking forward to a quiet day off.

When the company I was working for in Lyon was bought out by a German group, then merged with another Swiss company, our site held a bit of a manif. The pharma industry is not notorious for strike action; it’s a fairly conservative field of well-paid scientists and sales reps. But when any group of employees is threatened with potential job loss in France, you can be sure that the unions will get people out on the street. As I recall, there was a gathering of people waving signs, mostly dressed in while lab coats for effect. There were speeches and air horn blasts. I don’t remember if we processed anywhere. Most likely I took a page out of my mother-in-law’s book and went home early.

At such events there is often a festive air. It’s a bit like skipping off school.

There are sing-songs, usually led loudly off-key by some fellow with absolutely no musical ear. There are balloons, the burning of effigies of leaders. Stands with hot chestnuts and sausage vendors on the sidelines. There is a lot of creativity, even ingenuity among French demonstrators. Of course, there are also massive traffic jams and police everywhere. Water trucks and even tanks.

This past week, hundreds of farmers dumped truckloads of straw on the Champs Elysées in protest of the government’s proposed law to illegalize agricultural use of the chemical glyphosate. They camped out on the straw and managed to block access to the capital’s most famous avenue.

It’s a complex issue which tends to inflame public opinion on both sides. The use of the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup which is already banned from private use in France, has been shown to be carcinogenic. At least according to some; others maintain there is no definitive scientific evidence of its danger to man. Certainly there are insufficient widespread studies, over sufficiently long periods, but it is surely not good for the environment or anyone who lives in it. I read one set of studies that found the chemical altered the ability of honeybees to fly and forage for nourishment. It has been so widely used since 1975 that traces of glyphosate can be found in virtually everything we eat.

The problem is that without it, commercial agriculture is doomed to lose money. And in France, that means many hard-working farmers who already struggle to make a living will suffer at least in the short term, until new methods and practices can be introduced. That is why Macron has appointed renowned tree-hugger Nicolas Hulot as minister of the ‘transition’ écologique. What is needed is a profound change in the way we grow our food to more sustainable methods. Such methods exist, and they work, but it will take time and money. In the meantime, there will be demonstrations.

The fact is, resistance is part of the French culture. It’s a bit like free speech to Americans or the monarchy to the Brits.

So next time someone asks, I’m going to the manif.

Et toi?

 

Bella and the VIPs

bella04Meet Bella. This bovine beauty was the mascot of this year’s Paris International Agricultural Show.

Aside from good looks, she and I have a few things in common. She comes from the Rhône-Alpes region of France, although a little further south in La Savoie. She’s one of a sturdy breed of cows – Tarantaise – not the biggest but among the most hardy. Adaptable, she’s known for keeping the grassy slopes of the Alps trimmed in summer which helps prevent avalanches in winter. And which also produces some of its best-known cheeses: Beaufort, Tomme, Reblochon, Abondance…

(I’m going to stop the analogy here – although I’ve been called a cow, I’ve never stopped an avalanche and don’t produce anything but words!)

But I’m sure that Bella, along with the hundreds of other animaux de la basse-cour – farm animals – who found themselves in Porte de Versailles over the past two weeks, felt like a fish out of water. I know I did when I arrived in Paris. The lights! The crowds! The rude waiters!

Le Salon de l’Agriculture International, as it’s now called, is an annual celebration of food. And of what the French call ‘terroir,’ meaning the ability of a specific place to produce a specific product. Saucisse de Toulouse, quenelle de Lyon, jambon de Paris: it took me awhile to understand the importance of terroir. Surely a sausage is sausage, no matter where it’s produced? Mais non! The Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé is a gauge of quality when it comes to the designated origin of French produce.

Terroir, in a nutshell, explains the philosophy of French gastronomy. It is why wines are named after their regions rather than their grapes. It is why a cheese called a Saint-Marcellin (a creamy, raw-milk cheese so fragile it has to be contained in a little cup) can only be produced there.  Or a poule de Bresse, a specific breed of chicken with its own label, can only be raised in that region.

And It’s what makes it so much fun to discover France. Because as you travel around the country, you will stumble upon all those magical places that produce the wonderful products…like Roquefort (ah, it’s a town, not just a cheese?). Champagne (a whole region for producing the bubbly?). Just about every bled (slang for town) has its own culinary claim to fame in France.

The small town I lived in for years in the Côteaux du Lyonnais was known for a kind of peach I bet you’ve never even heard of: la pèche de vigne (vine peach). A much deeper red in the color of its flesh, it’s the peach equivalent of a blood orange and makes a velvety juice like no other.  Every year the whole town celebrates this fruit at the Fête de la peche de vigne.

And all of these wonders are celebrated each year at the Paris International Agriculture Show. Along with the hundreds of different breeds of pigs, cows, chickens….and since it became ‘international’ a few years back, produce from Italy and other European countries.

I’ve never made it to the show myself, but every year the media regales us with stories from the salon and les coulisses (behind the scenes). Politicians petting farm animals is the French version of kissing babies. Here’s Hollande in action.

The organizers even made their own version of the ‘Happy’ video featuring the VIPs – Very Important Paysans (with a cameo appearance from the French Minister of Agriculture).

It is what we call ‘un grand moment de la culture française.’ And one year, I’ll go. Although, like Bella, I’ll probably need several weeks to recover.

Check out David Lebovitz’s blog for a true foodie tour of the show.