The French have always been known for their love of food. And two recent events demonstrate how the French have an impact on food policy. These events, the demonstrations against food multinationals and the French Farm Minister’s comments about what he will achieve in the new French Presidency of the EU could have important impacts on the food industry outside France.

Led by moustachioed and pipe-smoking José Bové, ten members of the radical French farmers organisation Confédération Paysanne, appeared in court on the 30 June. The groups appearance follows their attempts last year to wreck a McDonald’s hamburger bar in the southern French town of Millau, a place better known for its Rouchefort cheese. Over 20,000 people turned up in specially laid-on trains and buses to support the defendants, who have grabbed media attention both inside and outside France.

Bové is regarded by many French as a “folk hero” for his widely-publicised attacks, both verbal and physical, on American-style fast food, mass produced food products, and GMO crops. He also figured prominently in the protests which disrupted the Seattle world trade summit in December. His supporters have been in the dock before following the their destruction of the Swiss group Novartis’ French stock of GM maize seeds. On that occasion the judge imposed only a small fine, embarrassing Novartis in the process. With the current trail, McDonald’s have adopted a low profile, whilst pointing out that their chains a popular in France and that they provide important business for the French farming community.

On July 1 the French took over the Presidency for their six month stint in the chair of all the EU Commission’s committees. And we had a series of press releases last week to tell us what their priorities would be. The French Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, Jean Glavany, outlined his priorities for the next six months, and said that the informal Agriculture Council on 3-5 September in Biarritz would discuss the “European food model”. He said that the model was based on three pillars which would have to be agreed upon: diversity, quality; and safety. We wait to see what he means by this. But he did say that it was important not to stop Germans eating sausages, Danes eating smoked fish or French eating unpasteurised cheese. Who could disagree with that?

Glavany also mentioned several other areas:

The Farm Council must be able to review WTO issues regularly. Candidly he said, “We think that Europe has no interest in passively waiting for the US elections, and it must have the opportunity to “go on the offensive” and put forward documents”.

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The agricultural pillar of enlargement was another issue. The President recommended a “country by country and product by product methodology” by following a “very diversified road” but not mentioning accession dates. “If applicant countries ask me ‘what date?’, I’ll tell them ‘when you’re ready, the sooner the better’.

Mr Glavany carried on with his candour when he said that one question for which it will be “very difficult to allow derogations and transitions is “food safety”. As for “where to get the money” so that future Member States can benefit from the CAP, Mr Glavany said that if countries from the first group all joined at the planned date, that would mean Euro 8.5 billion for 2003-2206, and “we haven’t got that much”. He went on “we won’t achieve it before 2006”, and then there will be derogations and transitions before we begin to reach “same rights, same duties” for all Members.

Simplifying administration has been a dream in Europe for a long time and Glavany was able to say that he had the same dream. This was an area in which a lot remains to be done, “but the Commission’s working on it” and “several other countries have worked with us”, he said. Dream on baby might be the comment from the cynics.

Glavany was outspoken about the fruit and vegetable regime in the EU, which had been reformed only four years ago. “It’s working badly” although this is a “job creating” sector. Mr Glavany remembered France, Italy and Spain’s memorandum last year and hoped the Commission would put forward a proposal by July. The European Parliament could nominate a “rapporteur” in August and results would be seen in October/November. On sugar, Mr Glavany noted that France and Germany wanted very little change because “it works” in a restrained and responsible manner. He indicated he was opposed to the siren calls of the ultraliberals who want to cut prices. “We are not far off the world price, it’s the Brazilians who are dumping and we do not intend to chase after Brazil and its lack of responsibility”.
On the Common Market Organisation for pork, he thought that the last Farm Council had “tentatively moved in the right direction” on the issue of an EU-wide stabilisation plan and that the crisis had had a big enough impact to ensure something was done.

And this is only part of Glavany’s speech. He went on to talk about bananas, fishing quotas, food safety and the European Parliament, and more. It will be a busy six months for the Farm Ministers if Glavany is only half successful in his ambitions. We’ll have to see if Glavany and Bové have an impact outside France with their strong convictions.