Published on Wednesday, October 25, 2000 in the Times of London
The New Asterix
Attacking McDonald’s made French farmer José Bové a folk hero. Now he is taking on other multinationals.
by Charles Bremner
Slightly built and clad in jeans and an old V-neck sweater, the middle-aged sheep farmer hardly cut a dash as we walked into a Chinese eatery in the drab Paris suburb of Bagnolet. But he might have been a rock or football star. A quick hush was followed by a buzz as the customers realised that they had a celebrity in their midst: José Bové, the scourge of McDonald’s and national hero in the struggle to save the Gallic soul from fast food and free trade.

José Bové
Jose Bove's demolition of a McDonald's restaurant is merely the most dramatic event in a long career opposing the forces of agribusiness and multinationals which started during the events of 1968
Bové’s choice of the local Chinese was a typical touch for a man who has used a campaign for Roquefort, the quintessentially French cheese made from his ewes’ milk, to turn himself into a figurehead in the global “citizens’ movement” against the World Trade Organisation.

Not surprisingly, he had refused my suggestion to repair to the nearby branch of the company whose mascot, Ronald McDonald, hangs lifesize from a noose in his Paris office. A Big Mac would have been unthinkable for a man who has just been sentenced to three months’ jail for his celebrated assault last year on the “McDo” restaurant under construction in his home town of Millau.

The French still see McDonald’s, which has some 800 booming outlets in the country, as rather exciting, if unpatriotic, Bové says as he tucks into his beef satay. “If you question people coming out of one, they’re embarrassed. It’s like they’ve just been to a sex shop. They say ‘I just went to see what it was like and I won’t be going back’.”

With trademark pipe in hand, the moustachioed “Saint José” patiently explains that his peasants’ revolt has nothing against the Americans or the British, even if hamburgers were his target and Gandhi his model for resistance against the oppressor. “Our struggle is not with the American ‘Great Satan’ — it’s with the multinationals. A lot of them happen to be American. I tell the Americans that what we did in dismantling the McDonald’s restaurant was what they did at Boston when they threw the English tea into the sea.”

As for the British, they may not know much about food, but he admires the anti-GMO movement and is cultivating his ties with Scottish crofters and Welsh hill farmers. And he does not really object to all those anglais who have invaded southern France in their Volvos and Land Rovers.“It’s all right if they try to fit in and get to know the farming people, even if it’s just for the holidays. What’s bad, though, is the way they push up prices. The worst are the ghettoes of foreign-owned houses — all those Dutch who bring their holiday food with them in their cars.”

In little over a year, the war against “McDomination” has shot this eloquent paysan from the obscurity of his hill farm in the lower reaches of the Massif Central to the status of icon. Thanks to his assault on the Millau McDo, plus a talent for exuding plain-man’s indignation, France has fallen in love with the charismatic Bové.

He is being hailed as a new Asterix, leading the plucky Gauls in defiance of the new Romans. A sort of Lech Walesa of the Internet, he is fêted as he jets around the world attending summits of the “new international”, the “alternative global network” that embraces Third World activists, environmentalists and neo-hippies. In France he gets up the nose of the national farmers’ union; mainstream politicians defer to him, admiring his style but privately deploring his Luddite counter-revolution.

A new figure emerged yesterday in the ranks of those who do not worship Bové: his wife Alice. She denounced him in his own union magazine for running a macho organisation, exploiting her and leaving her for another woman.

Most French may do their shopping in cut-price supermarkets, but more than 70 per cent of the public back his campaign against la malbouffe — the term that he invented — which roughly translates as “horrible nosh”.

His admirers, known locally as bovistes, include the likes of Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder, and Ralph Nader, the veteran American campaigner who joined Bové and the other militants of the citizens’ movement in the protests that disrupted last December’s Seattle summit of the WTO. In July, after more than 40,000 people descended on Millau to turn his trial into a Woodstock-style happening, there were calls for him to stand for the presidency. Covered by US TV networks, the “Seattle-on-the-Tarn” spectacular put Bové on the front page of the New York Times and led an American magazine to list him as one of the 50 movers and shakers of Europe.

As unlikely as the soft-spoken 47-year-old seems as a glamour figure, it is not hard to see what lies behind his rise to folk hero. The ingredients are good timing, passion, showmanship and clumsy tactics by the Americans and the French authorities.

With his ruddy cheeks and blunt manner, Bové may look like the authentic paysan, but he hardly hails from the backwoods of la France profonde. He was the son of left-wing university teachers and he spent four years of his early childhood with them in Berkeley, California. “I have strong memories of America,” he says. “I really like the United States. The language is still in my ears and it really helps to be able to explain things to the Americans in English."

Henry Thoreau, the 19th-century Utopian, is one of his heroes. Bové opted for the country life when, along with Alice, his future wife, he dropped out of the University of Bordeaux in the wake of the 1968 student revolt and joined the back-to-the countryside movement. He spent a decade in the epic fight by leftist militants and small farmers to wrest the Larzac plateau, overlooking Millau, from the grips of the Ministry of Defence. He squatted in an empty farm and has stayed on the land since, raising two daughters and becoming a voice in the Confédération Paysanne, a radical movement opposed to big farm business.

Bové had already been given a suspended sentence for destroying genetically modified crops when Washington decided last year to punish Europe, and France in particular, for banning the import of US beef over the use of hormones. Incensed by a 100 per cent duty slapped on Roquefort, Bové decided on "direct action" and descended with a platoon of fellow farmers and local protesters on the Millau McDonald's after notifying the police of his plans. "The Americans took Roquefort hostage, so we had to act beyond the law to defend ourselves," he says. The one-hour demolition job did not, however, meet the docile response that the gendarmes usually accord French farmers when they smash things.

Bové was arrested and briefly jailed after refusing to pay bail, becoming a household name for a country that always takes the side of the protester or the striker. His glory was ensured when he made the news raising his manacled hands in defiance. The Millau trial and unexpectedly harsh jail sentence, passed last month, has confirmed his martyr's crown.

Bové says he brought about a "déclic" - a wake-up call - that touched something in the French psyche as fears over BSE, GMOs and food safety were compounding longstanding unease over the loss of French identity. "Hormones versus Roquefort. You couldn't get a better contrast between local quality and globalisation," he says. "It took small farmers to get people to make the link between farming, food and international politics."

"Le déclic could have happened anywhere, perhaps, but in France more than anywhere one of the first concerns for the individual is to know what's on their plates, and it's through the paysans that this has come about."

Bové's doctrine of "food sovereignty" - set out in a bestselling book - proved potent for an intellectual world that was boiling against the "imperialism" of world trade and France's socialist Government's supposed surrender to globalisation. He became the darling of Le Monde Diplomatique and other bibles of left-wing thinkers. For ordinary people, Bové spoke for the France of petits villages, red wine and honest paysans that inhabits the Gallic imagination.

Decoding "Bovémania", Jean Viard, a leading sociologist, says that Bové, with his "exemplary lifestyle" has established himself as "a bridge between the rural and urban universe. In one man, he is 'we the French'."

Not everyone is joining in the adulation. René Riesel, a colleague who broke with the Confédération last year, says: "José Bové is pure showman with all that circus he cultivates around anti-globalisation. The message is too narrow. He spouts rubbish and collects slogans, and Les Bovistes are sometimes extreme reactionaries."

The view seems to be shared by Alice Monier, Bové's wife, whose attack on him in Campagnes Solidaires, the union monthly, knocked some of the gilt off his halo. In the indignant tones of the wronged spouse, she proclaimed her "sadness and disgust" over her husband's "union of machos". Despite spending years as Bové's unpaid assistant in his campaigning, she did not receive a single phone call from his colleagues, not even a Post-it note on the back of a circular" to support her when their marriage broke up last June. "In other words, the old male tactic of cowardice," she says.

Bové insists that he is not setting himself up as a model, a political leader or a French nationalist. He applies a steam-age label to himself, claiming the mantle of "anarcho-syndicalism".

"We are a counterpower and not a substitute for politics. We have no fixed answer for everything. We are trying to stir a two-pronged movement, linking the land to globalisation, making people think." In practice, this translates as a form of Utopian protectionism. For a start, the WTO should be rebuilt as a democratic regulator of trade rather than an instrument of "planetary dictatorship".

"Taxes should be used to encourage farmers in all countries to produce quality food. People should be educated to shun the industrialised malbouffe that is impoverishing the rural world and destroying a healthy way of life.

"People don't object to paying for defence, but feeding the population properly is surely more important than the atomic bomb."

He admits the contradiction, some might say hypocrisy, of a modern, high-tech France that worships his creed while rushing for convenience food and devouring Hollywood films. France, he insists, is less of a lost cause than such countries as America, because, outside Paris at least, people remain attached to old values.

"We have remained a culture where the time spent at the table is not just for consuming food. It's a social and family moment. There is a frightening statistic from America that the average time a family sits at the table is six minutes. That hasn't happened here yet."

As he launches his second book in a year, Bové has, of course, a few contradictions of his own. To the public, he is a humble paysan who spends time milking his beloved ewes on the Larzac plateau and struggling with local farmers against injustice. In reality, he has become a full-time personnage médiatique juggling TV appearances with near non-stop travel to citizens' summits from the Americas to East Asia.

Since January, he has managed to spend only a summer month on the farm, which he runs with a group of friends.

The travelling might have to stop if the appeal court at Montpellier confirms his jail sentence at a retrial in the New Year. Either way, the event is certain to produce another explosion of Bovémania.

Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.