A World Struggle Is Underway
Jeffress (with Jean-Paul Mayanobe)
José Bové is a French
activist/farmer whose first fight was against the French government in the
1970s as one of a few hundred sheep farmers in the Larzac region that
attempted and finally succeeded in keeping that area of France from becoming a
military training ground. When the Confederation Paysanne, a second, more
grassroots farmers union, was organized in the late 1980s, Bové became one of
its three principal spokespersons. He took part in destroying GMO rice plants
at the Nerac research lab early in 1999, then helped in the dismantling of a
McDonald’s in Millau in August of that same year. The French courts sentenced
him to three months in jail, which is on appeal. The following interview took
place at Bové’s home near Millau, France, on April 3, 2001.
August 12, 1999, you and a group of farmers from your French union, the
Confederation Paysanne, dismantled a McDonald’s under construction just
outside the city of Millau near Larzac. It was this action that brought you
international attention. Would you talk about it?
were three or four of us who sat around in March 1999 talking about doing
something symbolic, but there would have been no reason for the McDonalds
protest if it hadn’t been for the outrageous tariff placed on French cheese by
the Americans because the French refused to let outlawed hormone-treated beef
be imported from the States. The tariff meant that we lost our cheese market
in the States. There was no political law against it, nothing to stop it, so
one solution was to attack McDonalds as a symbol of malbouffe (bad
We wanted to do
this protest in broad daylight, with a large group of people, a non-violent
action, but symbolically very strong, and up front with the authorities. We
were careful to explain ahead of time to the police that our objective was to
dismantle the McDonald’s. They informed their superiors and the police chief.
Then an officer from the police department called us to say that he was going
to ask the manager at McDonalds for a sign of some kind so we could destroy
that, that it be more symbolic. We told him: “Are you kidding? That’s nuts.
We’re going to dismantle the doors and windows.”
department didn’t think that the protest called for a big police patrol. We
did ask them to be there to watch over things as we emptied the construction
site, in case there were any workers or tools that were in the way. Everything
went like we thought it would. The only strange thing was the presence of ten
or so police officers in street clothes carrying cameras. The protest went
along and everybody, including the kids, helped dismantle the interior of the
building: partitions, some doors, electrical outlets, and sheet metal on the
roof that was nailed down but which came up easily, because it was part of a
kit, decorative stuff. It was really a light weight piece of construction, the
put into two tractor wagons, while some people repainted the roof of the
restaurant. Both wagons were full, one of them a grain dumpster. Some of the
kids leaving the site climbed into the dumpster with pieces of wood in their
hands to pretend to play drums, and we all took off in a parade toward police
headquarters in Millau. There was clapping as we rode through the city; people
thought it was funny and fun. We unloaded the wagons in front of the police
station. It was great weather, everyone had a good time, and the party finally
ended up in the outdoor café’s in Millau.
You went to
action, McDonald’s filed a complaint and four of us were put in jail. To show
that we didn’t think it was any big deal to dismantle a fast food place, I
went on vacation right after the event. Two days later, when I heard what
happened to the other four I came back and turned myself in at the police
station, which caused a stir. The judge demanded bail for all five of us to be
released, something that is unheard of in France. You just don’t ask union
members to post bail to get out of jail. The other four agreed to pay the bail
so they could leave, but the judge insisted on keeping me for 15 days because
I had another charge against me—destroying GMO rice plants at the Nerac
research lab. At the end of 15 days they said I could go if I posted bail. I
refused on principle and stayed where I was. I was there eight days more.
People from all over the world sent money, including people from the United
When the French
press interviewed Americans about why they were so willing to help, they said
that they thought it was a good idea to criticize McDonald’s. We were on the
front page of the New York Times. This was not an anti-American action;
it was anti-malbouffe. We were determined never to be trapped by the
logic of being anti-American. This is a fight against free trade global
capitalism. It’s about the logic of a certain economic system, not an American
system. It can be a struggle against any country, this one or that one. It’s
not against those who have an American passport.
surprising that there were those who saw this dismantling of McDonald’s as
violent, given all the real violence in the world.
there are different kinds of violence. Like the guys here in France who
recently destroyed the toll booths on the freeway because their products
weren’t selling well enough. That was stupid, idiotic. On the other hand, when
the wine growers from the Herault district got together to protest imported
Spanish wine that’s ruining their business and they opened the spigots on the
incoming wine caskets and emptied the wine into the streets, that didn’t
bother me at all. That’s something concrete, a popular action, an act that has
a direct relationship to the problem. In Seattle, when Americans asked me
about acts of destruction—things I didn’t have anything to do with, by the
way—I told them it was the Americans who led the way in all this. They were
the ones who threw the tea overboard in Boston Harbor because they were fed up
with taxation without representation. That was an American example.
If you want to
move the world you have to change the direction of things, which is what
happened when the French stormed the Bastille. Of course at any given moment
of history, there will be those conservative forces who won’t want things to
change. If a bunch of people went down and started to dismantle the Bastille
today, there’d be those who would come along and want to know, Hey guys, what
are you doing?
Is there a
point at which the French government will get fed up with the trouble you’re
causing and put you or some of you in jail for a while? You were recently
sentenced to three months in prison.
has taken on such importance they really can’t go back. The whole society is
behind what’s happening. What happened is that I am bringing up a political
issue and politically it can’t be solved, so they give it to the justice
department. But they can’t solve it, either, so it gets bounced back to the
political arena because it’s a political problem.
an activist for some time. Could you talk about Larzac and your role in that
Larzac is an
area in Central France between Millau and Lodève made up of a huge limestone
plateau, sparsely populated by sheep farmers. In 1970, the locals learned that
the area, much of it owned by the government and used for military training
since 1905, was to be expanded from 6,000 to 34,000 acres, which would have
meant the dislocation of 500 farmers and 15,000 sheep. I was part of a group
of activists who took up the cause of the farmers and I finally moved to the
area with my wife and became a sheep farmer in 1975. Throughout the 1970s
there were protests and events and finally, when Mitterand was elected in 1980
and kept a campaign promise, the courts annulled a large number of the
expropriations. In 1985 a contract was signed between the government and the
people of Larzac allowing them to rent and work 15,000 government owned acres.
Do you think
McDonald’s might one day leave France for good, given the trouble you and the
Confederation have caused the company?
What will make
McDonald’s leave is financial loss. For this to happen people have to stop
eating at McDonald’s. For that, there would have to be a lot of bad publicity.
The fact is, the restaurant chain is favored by the government. The restaurant
tax that McDonald’s pays is only 5.5 percent whereas the small restaurant
owners have to pay 19.6 percent. But because of mad cow and hoof and mouth
disease, McDonald’s has been hurt, as well as the bad publicity around the
employee strikes in Paris.
You were in
Seattle for the WTO protest in 1999. What were your impressions?
non-violent. Nothing happened in Seattle. But in terms of size, as far as
having a protest, there are so many here in France that the Seattle protest
was not so surprising. But for the States it was impressive. Two things were
especially interesting: the unions (maybe 40 or 45,000 members) joined
together with young people to block the conference, occupying all of downtown,
so there was this feeling of a street fair. It was peaceful and fun; the only
thing the media had to focus on were the 20 or so people who broke some
windows. There was no real damage, nothing more than what would happen at a
Confederation rally in France in Montauban [a town of 50,000 in the south].
in Seattle aware of the dismantling of McDonald’s in Millau?
Yes. Quite a
few. Actually there’s a lot of political consciousness in the States about the
dangers of free market capitalism. There are small unions in North America
that defend the little farmers.
You were in
Brazil at the Porto Alegre conference in February and in Mexico at the end of
the Zapatista march across the country. It’s clear you are encouraging
international solidarity against global capitalism. What is the best way for
concerned Americans to help in this effort?
To be as many
as possible especially in Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas
Conference [April 20–22]. They’re trying to unify some of the biggest
countries into an enormous zone of free trade, doing an end run around each
country. If this unification plan works it will be gigantic, total domination
by the multinationals. This in spite of the fact that the idea has failed with
the European Union. Jospin [French Prime Minister] has refused an equal
cultural exchange with other countries, preferring to limit foreign cultural
imports in favor of French art forms. Now the Americans are trying a different
tack in Quebec. They want a market where it isn’t quality that sells but the
stuff with the most advertisement. This free trade zone strategy was started
by Bush the father and is being continued by Bush the son.
Why do you
think mad cow disease has not broken out in the States?
There is talk
about something called “vache couché,” which may just be another name for mad
cow disease. There are a certain number of epidemics, including one among
caribou in Canada. Given that the same kind of animal feed has been used in
the United States, it’s not impossible that mad cow exits over there.
Scientists have their suspicions about diseases that resemble it.
The Big One,
by Michael Moore, has been very popular in France. Have you been influenced by
Michael Moore’s films? You seem to have some of his style of confrontation,
I’m all for
what he’s doing, but I don’t think I’ve been influenced by him, not really. In
France, the whole effort is about community. With Moore, he as an individual
creates the power, the force. In France, we function as part of a social
movement. I am just one of three spokespeople for the Confederation. Moore on
the other hand speaks for himself. But he’s interesting.
show that each individual can be an activist, acting alone, right? Don’t you
encourage that within the Confederation?
Of course. Like
with the closure of the Danone factories [French-based multinational that
makes cookies of various sorts including LU, Little Schoolboy, Pim's; bottled
water: Volvic, Slaveta, etc., and milk products such as yogurt, Gervais,
Peitits Suisses] and the consumer boycotts that have followed. It’s up to each
person not to buy LU products. That’s the way it should be. That kind of civil
disobedience is perfect, things people can do in their daily life to fight
against injustice. But this is new in France, in the last two or three years.
People are just beginning to realize that what happens in their daily life is
just as important as their professional life. Everyone has the capacity to
react privately to the market, like not buying GMO products or demanding that
LU products be excluded from the school lunch program.
founded an international organization three years ago, Attac [Association pour
la taxation des transactions financières pour l'aide aux citoyens], based on
the Tobin Tax Initiative created by the American James Tobin. Do you think an
organization like Attac is useful?
interesting about Attac is the collective pedagogy. The Tobin Tax Initiative
is really just a pretext for talking about fiscal matters in general. It’s a
way to raise consciousness about an economic system, a way to acknowledge that
there is a problem. This can be really helpful, even though there are those
who say that Attac is not radical enough, that it’s not going to change the
world. But the point of any organization is to have something people can rally
behind. If you’re all alone out there and no one is following, that doesn’t
work. Martyrs don’t advance things very far.
internal tensions among leftist groups in France (Attac, the socialists, the
communists, the ultra liberals) that could cause the present social movement
to fall apart?
Confederation is going to continue to function as a counter movement to the
power structure that exists, but not part of the government, as such, in any
way. It doesn’t do any good to create another political party. Government
problems and ours are not the same. The FNSEA [Fédération nationale des
syndicats d'exploitants agricoles—the majority agricultural union in France]
has a chamber in the legislature, but it has to play politics and is weakened
that way. It’s better to have a strong union than to have a chamber because
the union has much more power with the farmers.
We’re in this
struggle for the long term. The best thing is political networking all around
the world. Not everyone, of course, will be fighting the same battles at the
same time, but there will be moments when we will all come together in
agreement on a certain point, like what happened in Seattle. Any division
among the networking groups is really secondary.
the Zapatista march across the country. What are your thoughts on the Mexican
fight has been around for a long time. When we were battling in Larzac we met
with members of the Mexican Indian movement. But the Zapatistas have made it
possible to form a collective movement. There are a million Indians in Mexico
who don’t exist politically and now all of the various minority groups are
rallying around the Indian question. There were ultimately 400,000 people who
joined the march.
same sort of snowball effect happen in France?
what did happen in Millau last summer. More than 100,000 people showed up for
the weekend of June 30, from all sorts of different movements, catalyzed by
the Confederation. This kind of rally is understandable, given all the
agricultural and workplace traumas that are happening.
Do you think
that the GMO fight is the big one now?
In September I
was in India to help organize an enormous protest in South India where the
transnationals had organized conferences to try to introduce the idea of GMO
plants. The best way to fight GMO’s is for each country to prevent the
entrance of GMO products inside their individual territories. It’s a
fundamental struggle and one that can be won. The transnationals can lose a
lot of money. For instance, in Europe, the fact that we’ve demanded and gotten
a two-year moratorium on GMO research and production has meant the
transnationals have lost an enormous market. It’s cost them a fortune. They
had developed various varieties of GMO’s, ready to put on the market, and now
they can’t do it. All their efforts are wasted because people aren’t going to
buy the products. This creates an enormous problem. Also the fact that they
can’t continue with their research because they know that people are going to
destroy the experimental plants.
This is a world
struggle that is underway, that has taken off, and it will only get bigger. In
Brazil, there are states that have forbidden the importation of GMO products.
That’s really important.
What do you
say to those who argue that without GMOs much of the world will starve?
stupidest argument that exists. It goes against reality. There is more than
enough land to feed everyone. But instead of growing food to feed people
around the world, crops are raised to feed animals and then shipped abroad.
Not to mention hundreds and hundreds of acres of uncultivated land owned by
the wealthy, while the poor have no access to the soil. Quantity is not a
problem. There’s enough soy in Canada and the United States to feed the world
but it’s going to animals. What’s more, where GMOs are concerned, there is no
proof that they increase productivity beyond that of regular farming. GMOs are
just a way of privatizing agriculture, a way of keeping farmers from having
control over their own seeds—it’s a way to make agriculture as profitable as
quoted as saying that agro-business got a final boost in England under
Thatcher with privatization and lack of government controls—which led
eventually to mad cow disease and hoof and mouth. Do you think it’s possible
to stop agro-business now that it’s got such a hold in most European
This is a
European problem. All the countries must work together against malbouffe
and towards quality. That’s what PAC (Political Agriculture Community
within the European Union) has got to do, fight to move agriculture toward a
respect for the environment. This is also where agricultural research is
important. It has to move away from being an arm of the multinationals, away
from short term thinking and towards, instead, a long term vision, towards
organic farming. Research institutes need to be created where the research
that is done is environmentally sound, unlike the NIRA in France which works
with the transnationals.
of course is that the Eastern countries are quickly moving towards joining the
European Union. PAC has to be ready to help these countries create their own
agricultural markets, help them integrate by 2004 or so. Agro-business, with
its over-production and its inevitable reliance on exportations, must not be
used to feed these agriculturally poor countries and thus destroy their
agricultural markets, including those outside Europe. Each country has to
develop its own agriculture so it won’t be dependent on another country and
thus lose its freedom. When Americans try to produce for the whole world,
exportation becomes a political weapon. Poor countries import food so cheaply
it destroys all incentive to create local markets. In this regard, the
European Union is for subsidies within Europe, but never as a part of
exportation which causes such artificially low prices that poor countries
Of course, this
isn’t just a European problem. The small farmers in America farm with 40 milk
cows, doing it the old fashioned way. They can’t compete if the price of milk
gets unreasonably low; the small farmer just disappears. Subsidies in the
States are for the big guys, for agro-business.
Now that you
are speaker of a national movement don’t you draw all sorts of people to you
who will want you to support them, sometimes at the expense of your own
there are more and more people around which means more people I don’t agree
with, but I can work with them, try to convince them little by little of my
position. I don’t mind being criticized. I never said I was right about
everything. You just have to be clear in your own mind what you think and what
you are trying to do, then you can work with others. It’s easy to be critical
of everything and sit in a corner by yourself with your own truth, but that
doesn’t get you very far.
Lots of people
criticize me. There are those who said I was wrong to be on the Michel Drucker
show [Drucker: a Sunday TV talk show host who moderates “Vivement Dimanche”
(Sunday Live) with invited guests who are asked to invite their favorite big
name friends] because it’s “show biz.” But I chose all the people who came on
as guests with me and they talked about things that I think are important like
the Confederation, the conditions in the prisons, consumer society. There were
1.5 million people watching it.
The star image
is looked down on by the French, but you have to be able to convince people of
your position. I learned this 30 years ago during the Larzac battle. We won
because we were able to rally people through media images and symbolic
protests. We galvanized popular feeling around the issue. If you don’t find a
way to reach people, you can be as right as you want about something, but
you’re not going to change anything. The purpose of a political struggle is to
It’s true that
the Confederation has had a change of image along with me, and so it’s a new
ballgame. We have to invent reactions to things day-by-day because this has
never happened before. Political events have created this situation in the
last couple of years.
someone have to stand out, be the person the movement is identified with?
Yes. There is a
moment when someone has to be the bridge between the movement and public
opinion. The trick is to remain a counter force but at the same time convince
more and more people of your position.
American dream the model for globalization?
I think there
are a lot of countries and people in the world that resist anti-capitalist
globalization, which is different from globalization, which we’re not against.
Because we’re here in the west where Internet logic reigns, we think the
Internet is transforming life everywhere, but before you have the Internet you
have to have electricity and a telephone. This isn’t the case in a lot of
places. If they do have television, the films are not necessarily American. In
India, they’re watching Indian tele-films.
No, I think it
has to do with a model that is trying to be imposed through transnational
logic. It’s not simply American. It’s a model that’s much larger than that,
one that comes with a certain economic way of thinking. Culturally, it’s true
that the Americans have created a certain model, but look at McDonald’s in the
States. It’s not a symbol of affluence. The poorest of the poor eat at
McDonald’s. They eat there or go to the soup kitchens. It’s not a model of
high class culture, not by a long shot. It represents the worst of the
model of free trade is not something that is viewed positively; more and more,
people are resisting the model. Z