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FRANCE: José Bové a 'French Gandhi'?

by Charles BremnerTimes of London
July 1st, 2000

The anti-capitalist campaigner José Bové compared himself to Gandhi when he went on trial yesterday for demolishing a McDonald's restaurant in a southern French market town.

M Bové, a 47-year-old farmer, told the court: "Gandhi dismantled a British installation in the cause of peaceful resistance to British rule in India. Our action was non-violent resistance by citizens . . . against American provocation."

Nine others are also on trial with M Bové in an event that has become like a two-day Woodstock for the international anti-capitalist movement.

About 20,000 supporters packed the narrow streets of Millau, in the heart of Roquefort cheese country, as M Bové and his comrades arrived aboard a tractor-drawn trailer decorated like a tumbril.

"We shall overcome - save our Roquefort and down with la malbouffe [junk food]," M Bové shouted.

The tractor held aloft a giant wheel of Roquefort, the cheese at the centre of a trade dispute that led to the peasant farmers' uprising and launched M Bové as an anti-American Gallic folk hero last year.

The US imposition last year of a 100 per cent duty on Roquefort came after France refused to import hormone-treated American beef unless it was labelled. The US action was used by M Bové, head of the Small Farmers' Confederation, for a crusade that has had statesmen courting him and protesters acclaiming him at places such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit in Seattle.

M Bové's stunts yesterday set the tone for a brief trial that the "Asterix of the Larzac plateau" and his supporters have used to rally protest and worldwide media coverage to their crusade against the "evils" of US-led globalised trade.

Already under a suspended sentence for vandalising genetically modified crops, M Bové and the nine farmers face a five-year prison term or a Fr500,000 (£45,000) fine for damaging the McDonald's restaurant. It was under construction when his group attacked it last August.

The decision by an examining judge to prosecute M Bové last year, jailing him for three weeks before bail, was an unusual break from the tolerance usually shown by the authorities towards the excesses of the country's increasingly irate farmers. However, the signs were that Judge François Mallet, a one-time Communist and popular local figure, was ready to play along with M Bové's idea of converting the trial of the "Millau Ten" into a prosecution of la mondialisation (globalisation).

The judge teased M Bové, asking him how he could call an attack using tractors, crowbars and chainsaws non-violent. But he accepted his request that 14 French and foreign celebrities of the new "Citizens' International" speak as witnesses to explain the context of M Bové's violent act of protest last year. They were being questioned benignly about politics and US policy by Henri Leclerc, a celebrated Paris lawyer and former president of the French League for Human Rights.

Lori Wallach, director of the US Public Citizen Global Trade Watch and star of the Seattle protests, said before entering the court: "The real trial here is against globalisation and the WTO. It is not the farmers who should be judged guilty, it is the system that has put them in a position where bureaucrats can dictate rules. Many people in the world say WTO is imposing a deadly global rule on us and we must be liberated from it." A showman to the hilt, M Bové took command of the courtroom as he insisted that his McDonald's attack, which inflicted £100,000 of damage, was really caused by the Americans.

"It was a provocation the moment that the Americans decided to tax Roquefort and there was no recourse for us through the WTO. It's an organisation above the law that no one can challenge," he said.

The hearing continues today and the court delivers a judgment later this summer.

Outside in the streets, a motley army of protesters, ranging from Guatemalan campesinos to German anti-nuclear fighters, basked in the sun and enjoyed the local wine as they subjected McDonald's and Uncle Sam to verbal assault.

"Non à la McDomination," chanted one squad. "WTO equals death," said another. The atmosphere was pure 1970s with the multitude of tie-dye garbed protesters, pot-smoking acrobats and militant peasant farmers. For France, the festival was almost a replay of the great demonstrations staged around Millau in the late 1970s when Jose Bové and other young militants won national support for opposing government plans to turn the Larzac plateau into an army base.

Although seen in France as an archetypal peasant-farmer, M Bové started farming as a refugee from the Paris student movement in the early 1970s. One reason why the US media embraced him last year was his good English, which he learnt as a child in Berkeley, California, where his parents were university researchers.

However, M Bové's celebrity may have passed its peak. His nostalgia movement is beginning to look out of touch. President Chirac sensed this this week when he pointed out that "everyone realises globalisation is here to stay".

Losing patience with M Bové's Millau circus, Jean Glavany, the Farm Minister, accused him of humbug. "This is not the trial of globalisation they are trying to make us believe. It's the prosecution of an ordinary crime," he said.

The Millau McDonald's, rebuilt and in business, is staying closed during the Bové trial. Its owner dropped private charges against M Bové, along with McDonald's France. The company is, however, bitter towards the farm campaigner for making it a symbol of French ire last year.

The campaign had indirect tragic consequences this year when Breton separatists planted a bomb in a McDonald's, killing one of its staff.





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