2015 09 – News From France


French farmers

French farmers have spent the summer in disputes over the price of milk, pork and beef.  They demonstrated, blocked motorways and access to supermarkets or headquarters of food firms, and demanded help from the government.

The government intervened by setting a minimum price for milk and pork.  Supermarkets say they have accepted this price, but that the intermediate firms that actually buy from the producers have not. In the case of pork, the two main buyers of pigs have simply refused to turn up to the main sale of animals (in Brittany), with the result that the price of pork could not be set, and a large number of animals were left unsold and returned with their owners.

The problem is not new.  Technology enables a vast increase in production, which results in more milk and pork than can be sold. Until April this year, milk quotas restrained the production of milk. Now farmers are free to produce as much as they like, or, in other words, obliged to run the race to produce as much as possible.

French farmers blame German and Spanish farmers, who also complain that they are in a difficult position. Each looks at their neighbour and complains about the low wages they pay, their less stringent environmental laws etc. All are also confronted with a drop in export: a large drop in Chinese demand for their product, and the Russian ban on European goods following the imposition of sanctions.

By adopting the free market, European has fragmented: when there were quotas, the different countries were not in competition with each other to the same extent. The ending of quotas has led to a race to produce the most, and to conquer the greatest share of the market, with inevitable debt (to modernise and increase production) and financial difficulties.

There was a beginning of a European solution to the milk problem.  There were differences between countries: different environmental and social  regulations, or at least differences in how regulations were implemented; different countries had a greater or smaller number of small or less automatized farms, some governments subsidised more or less. The quotas permitted the survival of smaller farms and therefore limited the competition between countries. Now each country is fighting against all the others in the struggle to sell milk and pork. EU Agriculture Ministers are meeting on 7 September to discuss the crisis.

This fight will intensify with the EU-US trade ‘partnership’ treaty, TTIP, which aims to harmonise regulations and create one European-American market. Those who have the biggest and most mechanised farms will produce the most cheaply and sell the most. Their erstwhile competitors will disappear.


French farmers union   

The biggest farmers union (FNSEA) wants large scale mechanized production; its leader reportedly owns a large chicken processing concern, importing cheap poultry from Brazil.  Smaller unions (Confederation Paysanne) defend small scale production; its programme is, to summarise: fix prices to cover costs, stop producing for export, develop meat quality, stop importing meat. All impossible with a liberal government.

The National Front’s reaction is to protest against Germany and Spain using the Posted Workers Directive to employ foreign workers at reduced rates; to make compulsory the labelling of origin of meat products, in order to enable customers to choose French products; to encourage local authorities, hospitals etc to use French products in their catering, a preference allowed by law;  call into question sanctions against Russia, cause of the boycott of European products, and fight TTIP.  These suggestions are in fact not radical and would not solve the problem.

TTIP will be the extension of the European free market to include the United States, and will make the situation worse for smaller European farmers. Nevertheless it may happen; voices are raised against it, but so far they are a minority.The population has an instinctive sympathy for the milk and pig farmers, as they have towards those whose livelihood is threatened, but it is skin deep. They are fatalists and accept that progress and technology are necessary and inescapable, and in a sense good. People have so far accepted that being modern and technologically advanced is good and that you shouldn’t help those who cling to slower ways of producing. The fastest and most efficient way of doing something must be adopted, especially as it is the way to make the most money. Grouping animals together in one place, off the ground, surrounded by automatic distributors of nutritious food, is the quickest and most efficient way of producing a 120 kg pig, so it’s now the only way to do it.

There are problems with it, that is, production that goes beyond what the market will absorb: degradation of animal welfare, the production of amounts of waste that ruin the land and the sea.  So far only the first problem causes widespread unrest, among those directly affected.

The Pope’s 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si, might begin to have an influence among the general population; the radio station Europe 1  (28.8) quoted his rejection of unthinking approval of technology and greed as a sensible and important thing to say.


Teaching of morality in schools.

Greed used to be bad, admiration and love of nature used to be good, all sentiments which could lead to a solution to the agriculture crisis. The government is reintroducing morality in schools, after it was abolished after 1968, but it won’t be teaching that greed is bad and nature good.

Schools will teach morality to children from the age of 5. The official programme is on line, and strangely it is prefaced by the 1883 letter from the then Minister of Education, Jules Ferry, to school teachers, regarding the teaching of morality. The idea presumably is to pretend that there is republican continuity in the action of the government. Jules Ferry is a respected figure as the founder of  Republican Education, who wrenched schools from the grasp of the Catholic school. The other continuity is in the assumption of a universal morality that everyone is able to find in his conscience; in 1883, that assumption relied on the still present Christian belief; in 2015, it is just an assumption, supposed to be based on reason, i.e. anyone reasonable will agree there is a universal morality.

In fact, as the quotes below will show, the present day teaching bears no relation to the 1883 letter, neither in content nor in intent.  The idea of reintroducing moral teaching came with the realisation that the perpetrators of recent attacks on French soldiers and writers on French soil were French. Unlike 1883, the 2015 programme treats the child as a lone individual, unconnected to a family or a community, except school and France, and the aim is to make him think, question his beliefs and give them up: “The pupil is encouraged to think, name things, listen to other points of view, defend his position, question his position, doubt, find out more, and be prepared to change his opinions.”  The French text ends with ‘renoncer’ which I have translated as ‘be prepared to change his opinions’ but really means ‘give up’.

The 1883 letter says the opposite expressly:

“It goes without saying that the teacher will avoid as a bad deed anything, in his language or his attitude, which might hurt the children’s religious beliefs, anything that could trouble their spirit.

That 1883 letter has content, and presents the child as being part of a family he or she must love, respect and help.  The teacher must teach the child to love nature and God.  The Ferry directive begins:

“Secular moral teaching is different from religious teaching but does not contradict it.  The teacher does not take the place of the priest or the father; he joins his efforts to theirs in order to make of each child a good and honest man.”

“Later, when they have become citizens, [the children] may become divided by dogmatic opinions, but at least they will agree in practice to place the purpose of life as high as possible, to hate all that is base and vile, to admire all that is noble and generous, to have the same ready recognition of duty, to aspire to moral improvement, whatever the efforts it might cost, to feel united in this general cult of what is good, beautiful and true, cult which is a form, and not the least pure, of religious feeling.”

This feeling of something greater than yourself extends to nature: “To lead children upwards to a feeling of admiration for the universal order and to religious feeling by presenting to them great natural beauty”

Then from age 9 to 11:

The child is considered as first of all part of a family: he has duties to his parents and grand-parents : obedience, respect, love, gratitude; helping the parents in their work, bringing them comfort when they are ill; supporting them in their old age.  Duties to brothers and sisters: love each other, the older ones to protect the younger ones, give a good example. Then the child at school has duties towards the teacher and his school mates. Finally the child has a duty to France, ‘in her greatness and her misery’.

Regarding material goods: avoid debt, do not love money, and gain, too much; work (not waste time, work is obligatory for all men, nobility of manual work.)

Then from age 11 to 13, the teacher will show pupils the difference between duty and self interest, even when they seem to be the same, i.e. the imperative and disinterested character of duty.

And the distinction between written law and moral law: the first is a minimum of rules that society imposes on pain of penalties, and the second imposes to everyone in the secret of his conscience a duty that no one can force him to accomplish, but which failure to accomplish would lead to a feeling of guilt towards himself and towards God.”

The modern moral programme assumes that there is a universal morality that everyone can feel.  However the minister has given up on putting forward a ‘lay morality’, instead we have ‘moral and civic education’, which for the younger ones is limited to school rules, like listen to others and take turns speaking, which presumably teachers have always taught.  Pupils are also assumed to have learned strictly nothing at home, not even to wash their hands.

What children see if they look around them is that right is on the side of the technologically advanced and the greedy. In that context, ‘respect for others’ is just a phrase. Yet school is supposed to teach children that it is the highest value in our society.