He is the walrus-moustached farmer whose fight against McDonald's and globalisation saw him hailed as a modern-day Asterix leading the Gauls. But José Bové yesterday left his sheep farm in southern France, strolled into a labour exchange in a rundown north Paris suburb, took a draw on his trademark pipe and announced he was running for president.
The self-styled country bumpkin who rose to stardom in 1999 for dismantling a half-built McDonald's in the fight against "crap food" is now coming to the rescue of the riot-hit concrete jungles of France's urban housing estates. "I will be the spokesman of the voiceless," he announced yesterday.
Bové says he will run for president as ‘the spokesman of the voiceless’. Photograph: Joel Robine/AFP
Bové is claimed as the last internationally recognisable French icon leading a battle against international fat cats, genetically modified food and the evils of liberal freemarket greed. Described as both a Robin Hood and a John Wayne figure, he has travelled from Seattle and Genoa to Brazil and the Zapatista enclaves of Mexico to be a voice of the "little people", oppressed world farmers.
But the 53-year-old grandfather's campaign for the French presidency, on a ticket of speaking up for the people, defending the environment and fighting globalisation, appears to some on the extreme left like an act of folly. In recent weeks around 70% of French people were against him running according to one poll, and he stands to gain less than 3% of the vote. Initially, he wanted to unite a coalition of French anti-liberals, but when that failed he decided to run himself.
In three weeks Bové got the backing of more than 30,000 people in an online petition. He is partly driven on his successful rally of the no vote in the French referendum on the EU constitution in 2005. But he will have to work to gain the required backing of 500 politicians. He could also be the first person to run for president from behind bars, as the court of the appeal decides next week whether to send him to prison for four months for sabotaging GM crops.
Detractors claim Bové is an opportunist who was born into a bourgeois family, an activist who learnt to farm, rather than the genuine emblem of a peasants' revolt. But those around him describe a pacifist hero. "He's walking in Gandhi's footsteps in his own way. There isn't any personal ambition about him," said François Roux, his lawyer of 30 years.
Bové was born near Bordeaux, the son of two atheist and right-leaning scientific researchers. When he was a child they moved to the US for a period to work at the University of California, Berkeley. Presented as an archetypal anti-American, Bové actually has American tastes, including a passion for Dylan, Kerouac and Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata!. His father, originally from Luxembourg, later worked at a top public research laboratory in France openly backing research on genetically modified crops.
It was as a 19-year-old conscientious objector hiding out on southern farms that Bové embraced the "back to the land" movement. After joining a vast peace movement fighting the expansion of a military camp, he set up on the rugged Larzac plateau farming sheep for Roquefort cheese, at one stage living with no running water or electricity. Later he helped found a radical union for small farmers and associated himself with every leftwing cause he could find.
But despite the bravado friends say he hated being locked up. François Durfour, an organic farmer and fellow activist for 30 years, said: "He was traumatised by the terrible nights, the screams and calls for help of the prisoners." Bové later defended television pornography calling it crucial for prisoners.
Raoul Jennar, a Belgian who has worked with Bové for 10 years on GM crops and World Trade Organisation dossiers, denied he was bourgeois or power-hungry. "He is a sheep farmer before anything else. He models himself on Gandhi or Martin Luther King."
Omeyya Seddik, who worked with Bové in poor housing estates in southern France, said he had an uncanny way of appealing to people on urban high-rises. "Once, I took him to the flat of a woman whose son had been shot by police. He immediately started talking about agricultural methods because she had been a farmer in Morocco. He taps into people's roots, talks to them plainly. He really understands the people on these estates."
Born June 11 1953 in Talence, near Bordeaux. The son of two agricultural scientists, spent first seven years of his childhood in Berkeley, California.
Education Jesuit secondary school near Paris and University of Bordeaux
Career In 1975 became anti-military activist and sheep farmer, producing roquefort cheese. In 1976, served three weeks' imprisonment over protest against extension of Larzac military camp. In 1987 formed the Confédération Paysanne, promoting organic farming. Gained international fame in 1999 by ransacking a McDonald's restaurant being built in the Pyrenees town of Millau. Sentenced to three months. Numerous other prison terms and in 2002 deported by Israeli police after meeting Yassir Arafat.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007