10 September 1999
How French make stroppiness pay
by Philip Clarke, Farmers Weekly Europe Editor
Cultural differences between France and the UK are extreme and the idea of British farmers ransacking a McDonalds outlet seems alien.
But there are lessons to be learnt from the French, despite their well-deserved reputation for stroppiness.
Over the years, British lamb exporters have become used to seeing their cargoes roasted long before they get anywhere near a cooking facility.
But while that particular trade has had a relatively clear run of late, there have been other targets.
McDonalds and Coca-Cola have both felt the wrath of French farmers, out to revenge the US decision to tax Roquefort cheese and foie gras pat out of the market.
Action has ranged from dumping trailer loads of manure in McDonalds car parks to releasing farmyard animals inside the restaurants. One farm leader was even jailed.
Farmers are adamant that their cause is just.
What right have the Americans to target our top quality cheese and pat just because we dont want their hormone-injected beef, one farm leader told Farmers Weekly.
French farm minister Jean Glavany has been equally candid at the diplomatic level, calling US food the worst in the world.
And its not just US firms that have been hit. In this summer of malcontent, French supermarkets have also been the focus of attention.
Fruit and vegetable growers have taken to dumping rotten produce on the stores doorsteps in response to falling prices. Recently, dairy farmers joined the protests too.
One manifestation at a Leclerc supermarket in Brittany, last week saw milk producers blockade the store with shopping trolleys in a bid to keep customers away.
Justifying the action, one local Breton dairy farmer said his milk price had dropped by 5 centimes/litre in 12 months and the trend was still downwards.
That is equivalent to just 0.5p/litre. What must they think of the British, who have seen prices fall by 7p/litre in three years?
Yes, we have a reputation for reserve. But the almost calm acceptance of this sustained assault on farm incomes has left French producers bemused.
What they dont appreciate, of course, is the clear cultural differences between the two countries.
French farmers make up a much bigger part of the population and there are stronger links between town and country.
The French public is also more tolerant of civil unrest so farmer demonstrations get results.
Farm minister Jean Glavany has already written to European Union agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler demanding action to help the milk sector.
And in a bid to embarrass supermarkets into paying more, he recently introduced a dual pricing scheme, whereby retailers have to put farm gate prices on labels.
So is there a case for UK farmers to be more aggressive in their protests?
The National Farmers Union says not, preferring the softly-softly approach, rather than risk upsetting the general public.
However, some groups have taken matters into their own hands, with the British Pig Industry Support Group lobbying shoppers to buy British pork.
In the south-east, farmers have abandoned bull calves at Carla Lanes animal sanctuary and Welsh farmers have dumped worthless ewes at an RSPCA centre.
Confounding the sceptics, there has been no consumer backlash to these stunts. In fact, public and media reaction has been largely sympathetic.
True, there can be no case in the UK for French-style campaigns, and it would be foolish to underestimate the value of the NFUs behind-the-scenes work.
But disciplined action, backed up with an explanation, can be made to work. The evidence suggests that, even in the UK, a bit of stroppiness can go a long way.