Resignation of the Ecology minister
At the end of August the minister for ‘ecological transition’, Nicolas Hulot, resigned, without warning, during a radio interview. He said he had had enough of ‘living a lie’ or lying to himself. He had hoped to work with the minister for Agriculture and Food, among other projects. Naturally they did not get on and the economic objectives of the agriculture minister prevailed.
The last straw was a meeting with the National Hunt Federation the previous day where Macron was present. It lasted two hours, and took several measures in favour of hunting, such as halving the cost of the hunting licence, from 400 euros. To cap it all, a lobbyist for the hunting fraternity, close collaborator of Macron, was present. This lobbyist was Thierry Coste, head of the firm ‘Stratégie et Lobbying’, whose clients include hunters, gun owners, and countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. He had given interviews to the media previously, where he had said:
‘My job is to defend the interests of my clients and to wangle it so that they win the argument with politicians in power and in the media. I am not saying they are right, just that they pay me to explain and defend their cause to the best of my ability. So my job involves first of all a lot of investigative work and intelligence: I infiltrate opposing pressure groups, trade unions, every group that can harm the interests of my clients. Then I have to convince ministers, their advisers, and M.Ps.’
‘I use good arguments at the right time. A good discussion, a good polemic, a good power dynamics, I use every means in my disposal. Legal points, communication, cool and friendly negotiation, whatever. I accept completely that I am a true mercenary. I have a code of honour, which is to respect the law and regulations, never use corruption, never exploit sex or money scandals. For everything else, I fear neither God nor man. Only results count as far as I am concerned: I respect the law, that’s it. For the rest I am without moral qualms.’
Thierry Coste may not choose his clients, but hunting must be close to his heart. He was invited to Macron’s 40th birthday party at the Chambord chateau last December. This is the biggest of the Renaissance chateaux in the Loire valley, a truly spectacular place. A hunt took place, and Coste describes the scene of the hunting trophies: ‘When the president arrived, night had fallen. It was very cold, the forest was shrouded in fog, and the hunters lighted with torches the boars killed. It was magic!’
Coste describes himself as the Machiavelli of the rural world. And he may well do more for nature and the countryside than all the ecology ministers and militants put together, because hunters actually need and want nature, woods, forests and empty spaces. This hunt lobby must be a rare case where the posh put up the money for a lobby that also defends the definitely not posh. So let’s take our minds off the Chambord spectacle, and think of the million remaining hunters in France (down from 2 million the previous year). Most hunt on Sundays, in their local area. They want paths into the forest, meaning some management, but mainly preservation of natural sites. The cost of 200 euros a year is a large sum for people who live in the countryside. (That sum happens to be what people on the minimum wage will earn more a year with a new reform of overtime announced by Macron.) Empty spaces, not exploited for buildings, car parks and agriculture, are anathema in modern society, where everything that can be made to make money must make money.
An example is the project ‘Europa City’ to build the biggest ever shopping complex in Europe, on the last bit of arable land round Paris. Developers counter attacks by saying the car parks will be designed as sponges, allowing water drainage, and will be planted with pollen bearing trees; the complex will include a children’s farm (as opposed to several real ones). Froggy might have to say a nasty thing about Mayors and municipal councils, normally praised here. Among their responsibilities, they issue building permits; when developers dangle new jobs in front of their eyes, and Europa City would be in an area of high unemployment, they may be tempted to sign away their remaining fields. A national policy of preservation of rural land would have to be there to stop them, with arguments that new jobs would mean destruction of old jobs in older shopping centres and no overall benefit. Unfortunately, there is probably no hunting in the area, which would have provided strong defenders.
The dilemma of cheap food
Modern life is clean, shiny and fast, with a preference for cheap. Cheap clothes, instant food. There is a pretence that this is what the whole society wants, and the well-off also go for cheap and fast; they frequent the same supermarkets as everyone else, with the same mottos like ‘we do cheap’ or ‘cheap is good’ and ‘we’re even cheaper’; in France, the Intermarché supermarket slogan even has a militant solidarity motto: ‘All united against the high cost of living’ (It sounds better in French: Tous unis contre la vie chère). We are all equal and all have access to this quick and shiny life. We don’t necessarily like the consequences.
Cheap clothes are made abroad, and the clothing industry has disappeared. Instant food does not have the nutritional value of food made from scratch and causes ill health. Cheap food means smaller farmers do not get the right price for their produce and give up, leaving the way clear for very large concerns that can produce food more cheaply than them, or for foreign produce. The French government is aware of the problem and is going to do something about it, with a new law ‘Agriculture and Food’. It has called a series of meetings in every region of France, called ‘Etats Generaux’ supposedly to involve the population in the elaboration of the law. This is a sure sign that nothing will be done. ‘Etats Generaux’ was what Louis XVI called in 1789; then it did produce results, admittedly. The ‘estates general’ were a temporary Parliament made up of the three estates (Nobles, Clergy and the ‘third estate’, that is, the bourgeoisie, those who eventually took over.) But today the estates general means a talking shop, designed to create the illusion that a subject is going to be taken seriously (but won’t be.)
The problems are real
For the farmers.
France still has people who farm the land their parents farmed before them, within sound of the church bells their parents heard. Their cows graze in the same meadows, although they are now milked in large sheds outside the village instead of trudging through the streets twice a day, splashing manure as they went. The fields are maize one year, wheat the next. Swallows nest in barns, feeding on surviving flies.
If these farmers weren’t there, their meadows and fields would be abandoned or taken over by large concerns that would put the cows permanently in sheds (‘off the ground’, as it’s called) because it’s more efficient and produces more milk, and the fields would be amalgamated together and specialised in one crop, which is possible with more artificial fertilizers, again for the sake of efficiency.
The reverse side of efficiency, in the case of animal rearing, is the effects on animal health, for example the increased use of antibiotics. In the case of crops, industrial scale means greater use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
The landscape of France is still covered in villages and fields with varied crops and you still see cattle grazing. There are still some people who want to live and work in this way, even though it is hard and lonely. The existence of machines and the cost of labour mean that the farmer often does all the work on his own. Then he, or she, has the headache of getting a price for the produce that will keep body and soul together.
For the consumers.
Obesity has now caught up with the French, after England and America, although still not at anything like the same level. OECD figures put France at 15.3 % (UK 26.9% and USA 38.2%) of the population being obese. 15.3% is an average, the numbers being higher in Northern France and lower in the South. The rate also varies according to income and concomitant level of education.
In 2012, 25.6% of people with an income less than 900 Euros a month were obese, as opposed to 7% of those earning over 5,300 Euros a month. 24.5 of those who had the lowest level of education were obese, compared to 8.8% of those with the highest level. Farmers are actually the category most prone to obesity.
A study presented at the Etats Generaux de l’Agriculture showed that in 2016 half of farmers earned less than 350 euros a month. This would be the case with some dairy farmers who, since the end of European quotas, have had to sell their milk below the cost of production. One can imagine the state of depression such a situation could create.
Obesity then has something to do with income. It affects primarily the lowest paid, and it should be considered a political issue.
Low calorie foods like vegetables take time and effort to get ready to eat, and feel less like a treat; they are also perishable, and cost more. High calorie foods are ready in packets or just need warming up, and generally cost less. Drinks are the same; a round of 2 glasses of lemonade with mint syrup costs 3 euros; replace the lemonade with sparking water and the cost doubles. The general fashion for eating when you feel like it and in greater quantities, has disastrous consequences for those who can’t afford the best food. Further, once habits are formed and the body is used to large quantities of dense food, the normal mechanisms of alternating feelings of hunger and satiety are disrupted and the advice to ‘eat less and move more’ becomes meaningless.
The Agriculture and Food Bill
The Bill aimed to tackle the twin problems of the standard of living of farmers and the quality of food.
Accordingly Francois Ruffin and other MPs of Melanchon’s France Insoumise presented amendments to Parliament asking for guaranteed prices, quotas, and banning of imports from countries with lower social and environmental standards.
Needless to say, these have been rejected. What was proposed instead was that farmers should be able to set their own prices, whereas up to now the four big distributors (supermarket chains) set the price. There is no guarantee that the distributors won’t reject the price and go elsewhere, leaving the farmer with unsold produce if he persists. Other amendments, equally unsuccessful, proposed a ban on junk food ads directed at children, a ban on battery hens, a ban on glyphosate pesticide, a ban on further building of super and hypermarkets (France has the largest surface devoted to supermarkets in Europe. In fact, supermarkets are called ‘les grandes surfaces’.)
The law is a failure for farmers and for food quality. It is a disappointment, but only if you had hopes. Since the preferred model is for food to be bought and distributed by the four big distributors, (to the detriment of small scale shops and markets that could sell local food), and for food to be produced on the largest possible scale, all this within European competition, there was no room for these proposals.
Paris hosted the international conference on Climate and sustainable development in 2015 (COP21) and Macron boasts of the role of France in the Paris Agreement to limit climate change; the media talk about the loss of biodiversity, endangered species, loss of habitat etc. Macron knows he must appear to be doing something about the environment. So he appointed a famous ecology militant, albeit one known for his ‘moderation’ and made him a Minister of State on a par with the Home Office. On the other hand, his priority is more growth, more economic activity, and he knows this is the priority of the public too. He favours big business, he is ‘le president des riches’ as his nickname goes. He will not support small farmers, who are not ‘ecologists’ but whose labour preserves biodiversity as well as the beauty of the French landscape. He helps the environment in words alone and his ecology minister, the moderate, in the end abandoned his pretend post, slamming the door.
It is interesting however that agri-business employs lobbyists to drown out the voice of MPs such as Francois Ruffin and organisations such as Confédération Paysanne, the farmers organisation that defends small farmers and environmentally friendly agriculture. If the propaganda money was evenly distributed, the Confédération Paysanne could commission studies that would prove that the cost of cheap food is not as low as it seems. An example is the cost of cheap pork when concomitant expense is included: in Brittany, industrial pig farming produces cheap pork. But the treatment of soils and sea water to remove the resultant pollution—at public expense— adds 800 Euros a year per ‘tax household’. But lobbyists earn large sums, which allow them to pay teams of researchers to build the arguments for industrial food, whereas campaigners against have no resources. And those who suffer the most from bad food and cheap prices are the low paid and small farmers. Who cares about them?