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Jose Bove--The New Leader of the Global Food Revolt

Jose Bove--The New Leader of the Global Food Revolt

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The Roquefort Files

He's the savior of fromage, the scourge of McDonald's, the protector of
organic goodness against the specter of mad cows and bioengineered crops.
Busted in France, evicted from Brazil, this pipe-smoking, draft-dodging,
ewe-raising farmer is a bona fide environmental star. And now he's going to
jail for it. Florence Williams on the trials of José Bové.

By Florence Williams
Outside Magazine June 2001

"Je suis un paysan": Peasant manqué José Bové photographed at a farm
on France's Larzac plateau.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
The accused threads his way up the steps of the stone Palais de Justice in
the ancient Mediterranean city of Montpellier. He has receding sandy hair
and a comically long walrus mustache, wears a fey little yellow neck scarf,
and clutches a pipe. Muscular young activists in yellow T-shirts escort him
past dozens of aggressive TV cameramen, all cursing through their cigarettes
and jockeying for a better angle. One trips and is trampled by the others.
Halfway up the stairs, the defendant turns, smiles into the cameras, and
gazes over the several hundred protesters gathered on the street below.
"Tous ensemble! Tous ensemble!" they are shouting. They, too, are
wearing fey little yellow neck scarves.

The defendant grins, 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. He has been compared
to Voltaire and to Robin Hood; the Socialist Party has urged him to run for
President. His name is José Bové. He makes cheese.

It is the morning of February 15, 2001, and Bové, 47, and his nine
(virtually unnoticed) codefendants are appealing their sentences for
criminal vandalism convictions, charges resulting from an August 1999
protest in which a McDonald's under construction just outside the farming
village of Millau was disassembled, bolt by bolt, and carted away. The
McDonald's Ten are all members of France's national Confédération Paysanne,
the militant small-farmers' union Bové cofounded in 1987. Bové, who was
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 other [genetically modified organisms], as well as
the residues of pesticides and other things that can endanger health."

This week, in addition to hearing Bové's McDonald's appeal, the French
justice system will consider a prosecutor's appeal of Bové's suspended
sentence in his conviction of holding hostage three agriculture officials
whose policy decisions he disliked. (Their imprisonment in an office in the
Aveyron regional department of agriculture lasted ten minutes.) A week ago,
a judge gave him a ten-month suspended sentence for leading a protest that
involved breaking into a research laboratory, spray-painting computers, and
uprooting trays of transgenic rice. Bové already spent nearly three weeks
behind bars after his arrest for the McDonald's insurrection. Unlike the
rest of the McDonald's Ten, he strategically refused bail, milking the
public sympathy and media attention that followed.

Since the storming of the McDonald's, "Bovémania" has spread as quickly as foot-and-mouth disease. Bové has been interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered and assessed by policy experts on Nightline with Ted Koppel.
Strangers shout his name. During the November 1999 anti-World Trade
Organization protests in Seattle, he delivered fiery speeches, linked arms
in human chains, and gave away 500 kilos of Roquefort smuggled in from
France. Last year, he traveled to India, Turkey, and Madison, Wisconsin
(cheese capital of the U.S.A.!), to rouse farmers against globalization. In
January 2001, he speechified at the World Social Forum held in Brazil in
opposition to the CEO-heavy World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
For good measure, he led hundreds of campesinos on a midnight raid to
uproot genetically engineered soybean plants on farmland owned by the
Monsanto Corporation.

Bové's free-market enemies have dismissed him as a mercenary, a poseur,
and a nationalistic xenophobe. But as Europe convulses in a deepening
agricultural crisis, as Britain torches and buries more than a million farm
animals this year alone, Bové's star only ascends higher. Wielding his campy
blend of folksiness and intellectualism, along with an unerring instinct for
political theater, he has elevated France's debate over food purity and
traditional agriculture to the highest levels of the national agenda.
France, partly in response to Bové's charming commando campaign, has
conducted a more focused, urgent debate over agricultural globalism,
bioengineered crops, tainted beef, and farming contagions than any country
in the world. Even the staid Parisian newspaper Le Monde was moved to
proclaim, "It is a cultural imperative to resist the hegemonic pretenses of
the hamburger."

And so, on this late-winter morning, Bové, a veteran of four decades of
left-wing mischief making, turns away with one last wave and enters the
Palais de Justice knowing that, at least for the moment, history is on his
side. He is the spirit of the Revolution and of badass environmentalism
cell-phone wielding, worldwide rabble-rousing, draft-dodging former hippie.
He has a wife, a girlfriend, a small army of attorneys, and the ear of the
prime minister. He is very French.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was first discovered
in British cattle in 1986. A similar infection, scrapie, had most likely
jumped species after sheep offal was fed to cows; the disease, which riddles
the host's brain with holes, spread further when the remains of diseased
cows were fed to other cattle. More than a thousand cases a week were being
reported in the United Kingdom by 1993. Only a handful of French people have
contracted new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease collapse that stems from eating
BSE-infected beef Britain, but 161 mad cow cases were documented in France
last year (and 1,101 in Britain). When several French supermarket chains revealed
last October that they had stocked meat from a contaminated farm, national beef
consumption dropped 40 percent.

The mad cow disaster, however, has been dwarfed by this year's outbreak of
foot-and-mouth disease. The first confirmed case of the nonfatal skin
infection, in which animals develop sores, lose weight, and stop producing
milk, turned up on February 20, 2001, in pigs in Northumberland, England.
They had dined on restaurant slop containing illegally imported meat from
Asia, where foot-and-mouth is common. The disease poses no risk to humans,
but is highly contagious and economically devastating; this spring, as
British farmers slaughtered up to 30,000 animals a week, scientists warned
that 30 percent of the nation's farms may be hit by the epidemic, and half
of its livestock sacrificed.

It wasn't long before foot-and-mouth jumped the Channel. On March 13,
France confirmed its first case at a dairy farm in Laval, where the cows had
been grazing near imported British sheep, and has since sent 50,000 animals
to the pyres. Eight days later, Dutch officials announced the Netherlands'
first case of foot-and-mouth.

But what does any of this have to do with the construction of yet another
McDonald's? Bové's beef was not with McDonald's per se, but in August
1999 the fast-food chain was a convenient scapegoat. Europe had weathered
a number of food scares that summer: Benzodioxin had turned up in Belgian
chickens, and, in an unrelated and unsolved incident, 14 Belgian
schoolchildren had fallen ill after drinking Coca-Cola, prompting a
three-country ban on Coke products. Mad cow worries lingered. The immediate
trigger for the assault, however, was a minor trade war between France and
the United States, in which a chief victim was Roquefort cheese, the pungent
blue made from sheep's milk and produced only in Bové's home region, the
Larzac between Toulouse and Marseilles. That July, after France renewed its
refusal to import American hormone-fed beef, the U.S. slapped a punitive tariff
of 100 percent on 77 French agricultural products, including Roquefort. "We
didn't understand why the U.S. did this thing," Bové gripes. "It was a real
provocation." Although McDonald's restaurants in France use only French,
hormone-free meat, many there view the chain as the embodiment of the
American 800-pound gorilla. (There are 850 McDonald's outlets in France,
and 1.5 million people malbouffe ou non.) When Bové and his fellow radical
sheep farmers heard that a "MacDo" was going up in their backyards, they
were insulted. And so, on the morning of August 12, 1999, after informing
police of their plans, the farmers, accompanied by several hundred supporters,
rumbled in their tractors and forklifts and Citroëns to the site of the nearly
completed McDonald's. With chainsaws, chisels, and screwdrivers, the crowd,
kids too, set about removing windows, prying off tiles, dismantling walls,
and taking down signs. "The whole building appeared to have been assembled
from a kit," Bové recalled with mild Gallic disdain. "The structure was very
flimsy."

The event was made for television. There was Bové, 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 the Millau
regional prefecture. There were the farmwives, cheerfully passing out
Roquefort snacks to drivers and passersby. "Every single symbol was there,"
Bruno Rebelle, director of Greenpeace France, says admiringly. "A small
farmer, a big fast-food, low-quality, highly globalized company."
"You see," he adds, "in the U.S., food is fuel. Here, it's a love story."

NEEDLESS TO SAY, THE McDONALD'S Corporation was not amused
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. He's an unlikely spokesman."

Bové, who has been making powerful enemies his entire adult life, is indeed
more complicated than the gruff peasant he projects.The son of two crop
scientists, Bové lived in Berkeley from the age of three until he was seven,
while his parents, Josy and Colette, studied microbiology at the University
of California. His two younger brothers grew up and got normal jobs, but
José made a career of rebellion: At 16, he got kicked out of Catholic school
in a Paris suburb for writing a short story about a not-so-godly hero with a
fondness for drugs. Two years later, in 1971, he dropped out of Bordeaux
University after one month. "I thought I had other things to do," Bové
says narrow definition of "conscientious objector," and hanging around Bordeaux
reading Thoreau and Gandhi. He met his wife, political science student Alice
Monier, when they found themselves painting a protest banner side by side.
It was their antimilitary activism that drew Alice and José to the Larzac.
In the fields outside the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, native ewes graze
native grasses, and the cheese made from their milk is infused with the
venerable fungus Penicillium roqueforti and aged for months in limestone
caves. As with French wines, the operative word is terroir ("of the
earth")
In the early 1970s, a large swath of this sacred cheeseland lay in the path
of a proposed army base expansion. José and Alice joined scores of students,
socialists, feminists, and general lefties in the Larzac farmers' fight. In
February 1976, married and with an infant daughter, Marie, the couple moved
to the Larzac full-time to squat on land purchased by the army. (They'd been
hiding out on a collective farm in the Pyrenees until then, so that José
could dodge the draft.) They occupied an old farmhouse in the village of
Montredon, and Bové busied himself planning pranks. That June, he and 20
cohorts broke into a military camp and stole records documenting farm
foreclosures; the next summer, he piloted one of 90 tractors in a convoy
that occupied the base's firing range. By the time the government eventually
backed down, in 1981, Alice and José had another daughter, Hélène, and,
with four partners, a robust flock of sheep producing fine Roquefort milk.
With the army off their backs, the Larzac farmers turned their attention to
more general reform, and in 1987, Bové and fellow farmer-activist François
DuFour helped found the Confédération Paysanne. For the next decade, the
new national farmer's union lobbied for small farming, created co-ops, and
fought the increasing use of the milk-yield hormone bovine somatotrophine
(BST).

In January 1996, as the mad cow crisis roiled Europe, Bové's genius for
symbolism reached new heights. He led Gertrude and Laurette, a cow and her
calf, to the steps of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris to
dramatize how normal farm animals would be rendered obsolete if the import
of hormone-fed meat was permitted. That September Bové led farmers into the
Central Customs Service in Toulouse and made off with documents uncovering
the large quantities of British animal feed being shipped into the country.
In January 1998, Bové and others broke into a facility in Nerac owned by the
Swiss company Novartis and destroyed genetically engineered corn seeds. In
June 1999, just before the sacking of the Millau MacDo, he pulled the
transgenic rice caper at the research lab, one of the cases on the docket in
Montpellier.

In the aftermath of the McDonald's incident years Millau for the first trial of the
McDonald's Ten in July 2000. The defendants rolled into town on a cart pulled
by a tractor, echoing the preferred means of delivery to the guillotine. Now Bové
is on his way to international celebrity. Having sold 100,000 copies in France,
his book, Le Monde N'est Pas Une Merchandise, cowritten with François DuFour,
is being translated into nine languages, including Turkish, Japanese, Korean, and
Catalan. The U.S. version, The World is Not For Sale, will be published by
Verso Books this summer.

Only in France, and perhaps Central America, do green peasant
revolutionaries become megacelebrities. Would Americans wear fey little neck
scarves for Ralph Nader? Bof. Ecoprotesters here risk jail time to save
endangered lynx. In France they do it for mold.

BETWEEN TV APPEARANCES and strategy sessions with his attorneys,
Bové is hunkered down in a faux-leather couch, sipping espresso and smoking,
in the lobby of his hotel in downtown Montpellier. In his plaid shirt, green wool
V-neck sweater, and jeans, with that ubiquitous pipe, Bové looks out of
place amid the mod decor. As we talk, he alternately ignores and courts the
swell of reporters lobby. He seems impatient, like he's got more important
McNuggets to fry.He's been 18 months without a vacation, he complains. He's
tired. But there's work to be done.

"In the Larzac we have been fighting together for 20 years, and people know
how to fight. They won't be scared to fight again," he says. "Farmers are
losing 15 million francs each year because of the United States. There is no
international court where we can say we don't agree. That's why we
demonstrated against McDonald's."

Roquefort cheese, Bové points out, is as opposite as you can get from cheap
beef. "Terroir is a human story, the story of the land. It means not just
geography, but a special way to make a product. The agricultural industry
wants to put all this out of business and keep a little place for terroir,
only for rich people." Meanwhile, he says, "American consumers care only
about price, not about what kind of food. People are eating out more and
more, eating quickly, having problems with health and 30 percent obesity.
The problem is the industrial way of making food."

"Making cheese," on the other hand, "you know exactly what you're doing."
Bové's agricultural solutions are extensions of this philosophy of
self-reliance. "Each area in the world should feed its own population, not
the whole world," he says. "One of the first things we have to do is stop
the subsidies and just feed our own population. ... Cheese and wine have no
subsidies. People who want to buy it, buy it. People who don't, don't."
All week I've been asking Bové to show me his Montredon farm, to see how
his two careers as protester and farmer have connected. First he tells me,
"Later," in that noncommittal French way, and then, "I've stopped inviting
media to my home." It's true, the attention is wearisome, but life in the
spotlight has also made it difficult for Bové to juggle increasingly complex
social obligations. When I drive through the Larzac's rolling grasslands and
lonely limestone outcroppings to see the farm where it all began, I find
Bové's wife and longtime comrade-in-arms, who is no longer one of his fans.
A petite, pretty woman with a smooth, warm face and a grayish bob, Alice
Monier invites me into their 130-year-old stone farmhouse, on a village lane
ending abruptly in fields. With a glance at her two visiting daughters,
Marie and Hélène, smoking cigarettes by the fireplace, she presents me with
a long cri de coeur published last year in the Confédération Paysanne
newsletter, in which she scathingly makes accusations of infidelity she says,
\left her for another woman last June emotional abandonment by Confédération
Paysanne. Not only is Monier disgusted with Bové, she is disgusted with the
whole pack of farmer-activists, the whole damn "union of machos."

Even some of the machos have grown disillusioned with their local star. A
couple of activists have jumped ship to work with other organizations,
citing unhappiness with what they perceive as Bové's media-lapping. But most
are still firmly behind him. In another old stone house not far from
Montredon, I catch up with McDonald's codefendants Richard Maillé, a
pink-cheeked fellow with a Caesar haircut, and Jean-Emile Sanchez, a Cat
Stevens look-alike with limbs like tree trunks. This is his family's farm,
Maillé, 34, tells me; the land has been cultivated since the 12th century.
(His graying father, Léon, brandished a chainsaw during the Millau
incident.)

I ask whether Bové gets too much credit. "Yes," answers Sanchez quickly.
"People are becoming more interested in his persona and forget about what
the movement's about. He's not the charismatic leader. This is not only
about him."

Adds Maillé, "They think if they send just him to prison, they will destroy
the movement. But the movement is bigger than that. We will continue to
destroy more crops. It will be fabulous."

The Maillés recently decided to produce organic ewes' milk, and so they have
switched from selling it to a Roquefort company (which, Richard scoffs, is
highly industrialized and not organic) to a local producer. He cheerfully
spreads the cheese on bread and passes it around.

Sanchez takes a bite and makes a face. "You can taste the nuts in the
bread," he says. "The cheese is not as strong as it should be."
Maillé is crestfallen. "I know," he admits sheepishly. "It's a new company,
and this cheese is only aged a month and not three or four months because
there's not enough production to fill the orders yet."

"We'll sell it to the Germans," he adds, brightening. "They're not
connoisseurs."

THE MONTPELLIER district courtroom is small. To the left sit the McDonald's
Ten, their army of attorneys (paid for by the Confédération Paysanne), and
their families and friends, including Bové's parents, small and
white-haired, who watch cross-armed from the back of the room. To the right
sit the prosecutor and representatives of the print media (no cameras,
please). Strains of festive zydeco and reggae waft in from the plaza next
door, where the mad cow-costumed, sign-waving crowd ("Liberez Les
Inculpes!"; "Cannabis, C'est Bon!"), will soon swell to 15,000.
Inside, the three justices, one woman and two men in black robes and white
cravats, sit at a high bench. Above them looms a huge fresco of a bloody
dead body in a toga, a guilty-looking miscreant, and a buxom puella holding
the scepter of justice.

Bové's scraggly codefendants look more like Aerosmith than farm boys.
They are here to demand equal punishment for Millau, instead of the individual
sentences they received last June, which ranged from nothing to three
months. "We want either three months for all or nothing for all," Sanchez
said earlier. "It's a group thing."

It is the intention of the defense to paint the farmers as the conscience of
the nation, citizens whose acts of civil disobedience, while perhaps
technically illegal, are nevertheless forgivable cries of truth in an
otherwise ruthless and technocratic world. Meanwhile, in the hostage case,
the prosecutor will demand that Bové's suspended sentence for detaining the
agricultural officials be replaced with real jail time.
The chief justice motions for Bové to approach the bench and give a
statement on the hostage affair. "Je suis un paysan," Bové intones with some
bravado. He says that he only wanted to discuss with the officials their
disappointing position on European Union farm policies. "We closed the doors
and kept them from leaving in a symbolic way," he says. "We knew we couldn't
hold the hostages long because we were in a prefecture surrounded by riot
police." Judge: "Could things have gotten out of hand?" Bové: "No, it was a
pacifist thing. We held a mutton roast on the lawn!"
In the afternoon, the chief justice summarizes the McDonald's incident: He
mentions the tractors, the forklifts, the graffiti spray-painted, the doors
removed. Bové is the first to take the stand. "McDonald's," Bové says, "is
the symbol of standardization of food. What we did was like the Boston Tea
Party." The prosecutor, a burly man, is turning red, but it's not his turn
to speak.

"McDonald's is a French investment," the chief justice argues, "with local
jobs, local meat, local produce." Then he switches tack. "What did you think
of the headlines saying you sacked the place?"

Bové: "It was an exaggeration. We didn't sack it. We dismantled it."
Judge: "What does 'dismantle' mean? When you took off the tiles, some of
them broke."

Bové: "What did it mean when they dismantled the Bastille?" The crowd
guffaws.

The prosecutor can't help himself. "Stop fooling around," he commands Bové.
When he finally gets his turn, he paces artfully. "Outside is a carnival," the
prosecutor says, waving his arm toward the wall. "But inside is a Republic.
This is a country not just of Roquefort, but of human rights. People have
different opinions regarding globalization. Yes, there is a crisis in agriculture
in France, but it's not clear whose fault that is. Monsieur Bové is a nice person,
but he's guilty! I ask for a doubled sentence for Monsieur Bové, six months in
jail, with three months suspended."

The chief justice appears to be sound asleep.

THERE'S A FRENCH saying that a man without a mustache is like a meal
without cheese. Beyond safeguarding both of these traditions, Bové has figured
out a central truth: If you're a Frenchman and you want to save the planet,
talking about food is the best way to do it. Bové's countrymen, almost
unanimously, see the health hazards of foot-and-mouth and mad cow as the
tip of a dangerous American-style malbouffe iceberg. Over half the food we
blithely buy in U.S. supermarkets contains genetically modified organisms,
most of them unlabeled. A third of our corn and half our soybeans contain
cross-species genes. French food, on the other hand, has a veritable caste
system of labeling prestigious Label Rouge, which distinguishes the most
superlative wine, cheese, chicken, and beef, to the honorable Appellation
Origine Controllée, which protects not only Champagne and Roquefort, but
Camargue bulls, Île de Ré potatoes, and Provençal lavender. Forget passing
off a genetically modified product: GMOs are rarely grown in France, and
must be identified as such. More than 60 percent of French markets have
agreed not to sell them at all.

To Bové and indeed most Frenchmen, the debate is about nothing less than
cultural survival: Will France become more like the rest of the world, or
will the rest of the world become more like France? The European backlash
against genetically engineered crops may prove futile; globalization may be
unstoppable. Still, European countries are growing more nationalist and
protectionist, not less, in the face of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which
is good news for antiglobalists like Bové. "We don't want a handful of
farmers providing a cover of rustic authenticity by looking after a few
hedges, flowers, and birds warns.

But if the French have an inherent distrust of inauthenticity, they are
equally suspicious of showmanship. "Bové is serious, but like everyone who
becomes a media symbol, he becomes quite ridiculous at the same time," says
Paris food writer Benedict Beauge. "What is it Bové believes in?" asks
Antoine Jacobsohn, a Franco-American who sits on the board of the Museum
of Vegetable Culture, which does exist in Paris. "Targeting the McDonald's
was a good idea, but...I'd like to see him promoting an image of terroir, not
just destroying things." Although, thinking for a moment, he adds, "I liked
it when he pissed on imported wheat."

On March 22, Bové was ordered to serve three months for the McDonald's
affair, a sentence he will appeal again. For the hostage crisis, he got off
with a fine of 6,000 francs, about $850. Jail wasn't so bad the first time,
says Bové; the guards, unionists themselves, were easy on him, and the other
inmates brought him Nescafé. "Jail is jail," Bové says from his cell phone
on his way to Sweden to address its farmers' union. "If I have to go, I have
to go. The only problem is that the pipe is not allowed, only cigarettes."
In the meantime his travel plans remain space-age. He planned to disrupt the
Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April, then head down to Mexico to
meet with Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos. In July, he will be at
the Group of Eight Summit in Genoa, Italy, and he'll hit Qatar in November
for the next WTO meeting. Then maybe West Africa, where he has fans.
The sheep farmer has grown too busy to farm.
###

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