Beki Grinter

Strikes

In European Union, France on October 16, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Today I decided to go to Metz city centre, well I needed a baguette for dinner and after two months here I’m feeling more comfortable cycling through the city with sticks of bread. In fact I feel like a local when I do this.

But today was the day when the cereal and meat farmers joined the milk farmers to complain about an EU Agricultural policies. The complaint took the form of a nation wide strike in which people drove their tractors to places and set things on fire, or in the case of Metz drove their tractors around the city in a very effective attempt to prevent all car drivers from entering the city. And the city centre was very quiet.

I encountered the strike on my cycle route into the city. I was glad to be cycling. I stopped to watch. I took pictures. A kind French man told me that today in Metz there were 1003 tractors who had formed a long line and they would drive around Metz. And I watched at least 200 of them drive by.

Several things struck me. France is not a place of agri-business, it can’t be. I wonder if the same strike was to take place in Georgia, USA or Norfolk UK, whether they could find 1003 tractors in the local area. I don’t think so, because I think there’s been a move towards agri-business. By contrast France is a nation of agricultural families and small, local, businesses. They care about their food. Food is more expensive in France, but it’s better tasting. Even Cora, which is like Walmart has food that tastes like food, food that has appellations (i.e. is regional specific and has to work hard to be given a certification — this came from wine regions, but it is applied to food). This orientation to food requires a style of farming that agribusiness does not readily support.

France is also a nation of young farmers. In the protest I noticed signs from the Jeunes Farmers union, (between you and I have trouble with young and yellow–jeunes and jaune–but I figured that it would be odd to have a yellow farmers union). And looking at the people driving the tractors I saw so many young people. And this struck me as odd. I don’t think of farming as a career for the young.

What I think is at stake is a way of life that still exists here, not exactly because of the marketplace, I suspect that there are subsidies involved. But a change in whether those subsidies occur, whether farming practices are local farmer friendly has huge consequences for France, and for the region I’m in if the number of tractors, the number of people who are young enough that they would be out of a job and have to retrain, implies.

On the other hand, I wonder whether some consolidation may have to occur. I’m not quite sure why, but again I was reflecting on how such a small place could find 1003 tractors worth of people to protest. That’s a lot of people.

The other thing that struck me while I stood there watching the tractors go past (well in addition to marvelling at the sheer variety of makes and models, I thought John Deere was a virtual monopoly, today I was reeducated about the state of tractor machinery) was that they care. What has happened to the strike culture? In a way, it doesn’t matter to me whose right and whose wrong, the point is that they care about what they do and are willing to tell people that they care. Perhaps you can have to much of a strike culture, but I’ve lived in the U.S.A for 20 years, and I’ve yet to see a reasonable strike. Do we not care about the work we do? Faced with change do we just go, oh well, never mind. I can’t help feeling that a strike is a way of saying, no this is not acceptable and I want you to know that. And, today I saw a lot of young farmers, and some older ones, who all told me quite clearly that these policies are a threat to their livelihoods, and they may have to deal with that, but they are not happy. And most importantly they care enough to fight.

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