Farmers against the EU

I pity Gabriel Attal, newly appointed French prime minister.

At a barely postpubescent age of 34, he has suffered from both homophobic and anti-Semitic abuse.

That double whammy didn’t stop his political rise, but it must have left plenty of scar tissue.

Gabe likes to boast that he has become the first “prime minister while openly assuming [my] homosexuality. In all that, I see the sign that our country is moving, that mindsets are evolving.”

On that issue, perhaps, although he’d be ill-advised to put that observation to a test in rural France inhabited by farmers. Those traditionally conservative and fiercely individualistic chaps aren’t for evolving, which has to put them on a collision course with the EU, the opposite of everything conservative and individualistic.

So it has transpired. Yet, while young Gabe is strong enough to take it, he can also dish it out. Faced with angry farmers who have besieged and blockaded Paris with their tractors and hay bales, Gabe lashed out with a furious counterattack.

He stigmatised the protesting farmers with the worst insult an EU apparatchik can think of: likening them to Brexiteers. That’s what I’d call faintly praising with damnation.

Now, I don’t know if Gabe is capable of factual accuracy and logical thought, although I rather doubt it. But even if he is, such faculties fall by the wayside whenever he or any other EU creature feels his cherished contrivance is under threat. To begin with, Attal contradicted himself in two consecutive sentences.

First, he accused the uppity farmers of angling for Frexit in disguise. Then, after barely a full stop, he claimed that “not a single French person” wanted to leave the EU. One has to infer that young Gabe doesn’t regard those farmers as French, which has to be an inference too far.

It’s just that he left out two words, “I know”, after “not a single French person”. The sentence would then ring true: I’m sure he knows few people other than EU bureaucrats, which is to say people in or around the French government.

By contrast, I’ve met only a few people in that coterie, but fair enough: they all adore the EU with a blindness characteristic of true love. But I must have the advantage over Gabe of knowing quite a few other French people as well: farmers, artisans, tradesmen, small businessmen. And most of them detest the EU with the passion of the Brexiteers Gabe loathes.

“Less Europe is less power for France,” said Gabe. And he could prove that with a single-word example: “Brexit. Its supporters promised happy days for the British economy and the British people. Last week, because of Brexit, Britain’s last blast furnaces shut. No more steel is made in the UK. In France on the other hand, notably because of investments from Europe, industry is reviving.”

I must compliment Gabe on his ability to squeeze so many lies into a short paragraph. He has got what it takes to become the next president of the EU Commission.

First, people voted for Brexit not because they wanted new riches, but because they wanted old sovereignty. Second, those blast furnaces were shut not because of Brexit, but because of the global warming zealotry common to all Western countries, including France and, lamentably, Britain. Those furnaces, however, are being replaced with electric ones to make sure Britain will still be able to make steel, if at an exorbitant cost. Third, Britain’s manufacturing output, though deplorably low, is still higher than France’s.

Blaming Brexit and, by implication, les anglo-saxons for France’s ills is a time-honoured sport, with every participant ending up on the losing side. The farmers’ problems are caused not by Britain but by the EU and its French quislings suffocating French agriculture with rotten policies and imbecilic regulations.

Most of the latter have to do with madcap environmental diktats, each producing an avalanche of forms, that raison d’être of bureaucracy in general and EU bureaucracy in particular. Instead of sowing and reaping, French farmers have to take a full day each week to fill in rubric after rubric with information on the putative damage their subversive activities cause ‘our planet’.

They have been hit hard by EU measures to cut nitrogen emissions, ban CO₂-emitting vehicles by 2035 and return a proportion of arable land to nature. In parallel, the government announced a rise in diesel duty, cutting deeper into the already low margins of tilling the land.

The farmers are also protesting against the artificially low wholesale prices imposed on them by supermarket chains.

Here I must display disinterested selflessness by saying that, though food makes up a big chunk of my own expenditure, its cost is still artificially low. Westerners have never spent such a small proportion of their income on food, a situation made possible partly by cartel-like pressures on farmers.

Back in the 90s we used to spend our holidays in a small Tuscan house we hired from a local farmer. Once we noticed a whole field of peppers rotting on his land. We asked Sergio if he’d object to us picking up a few for our supper. Not at all, he said. Take all of them if you wish.

Turned out he had planted the peppers because the EU had given him a subsidy to do so. However, the wholesale price he could command was artificially kept at, in our money, £10 for 100 kilos. That made it cheaper for Sergio to let the peppers rot than to harvest them.

The French farmers are also demanding protectionist measures against unfairly cheap foreign imports, such as grain and poultry from the Ukraine. That creates a clash of my innermost convictions.

First, the Ukraine’s need for exports is greater than the farmers’ need for higher prices, although I realise how little ice this argument would cut. Second, it has been known since Adam Smith at least that protectionism hurts the protectors more than their targets. Consumers of protected goods have to pay more for them, which reduces their fiscal power to patronise successful industries not requiring protection.

As Smith put it: “To give the monopoly of the home-market to the produce of domestic industry… must, in almost all cases, be either a useless or a hurtful regulation. If the produce of domestic can be brought there as cheap as that of foreign industry, the regulation is evidently useless. If it cannot, it must generally be hurtful.”

Let’s thank the great man for his qualifier “…almost…”. Agriculture is a vital industry not only to the French economy but also, even more so, to the French psyche. It’s like the motor industry in Germany and the financial industry in Britain. If it faces demise, even a conservative government (which Attal’s isn’t) would weigh its affection for classical economics against its commitment to the country’s people.

Attal has hastily offered some concessions to the farmers. He put on hold the increase in diesel duty, promised new subsidies for wineries, tax breaks for dairy farmers, and putting pressure on supermarket chains. So far such promises have failed to lift the blockade around Paris but, even when it’s removed, the underlying problem won’t have gone away.

For, as I’ve mentioned above, the collectivist, modernist, bureaucratic ethos of European federalism is existentially incompatible with the conservative, individualistic mindset of farmers – and not just in France. The same jacqueries are breaking out all over Europe, in Holland, Germany, Romania, Poland and Belgium, with cities like Antwerp and Hamburg also besieged.

That’s bad news for the EU and good news for ‘right-wing populist’ (in fact, variously fascisoid) parties. In France, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is leading Macron’s party by 10 points, with a similar trend observable across Europe. Farmers do pack a mean political punch in Europe.

One is tempted to think that, when Paul wrote to the Galatians, he also had EU bureaucrats and their local quislings in mind: “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  The language is suitably agricultural; the warning is suitably dire.

1 thought on “Farmers against the EU”

  1. Farmers have long been a protected species, at least here in the U.S. After the dust bowl and the great depression and advances in agriculture that led to record crops, policies were put in place to keep prices artificially high. This was done because even politicians understood that farmers (and the agrarian culture) were pivotal to America as America. Lately they have come under attack from many angles, most related to some form of “environmentalism”. The topic of learning from historical events often arises on this site. This is not limited to ancient history. We are not learning from recent disastrous energy policies in Germany or agricultural policies in Sri Lanka. As long as the farmers do not disrupt the Tour de France, I wish them success in their protests.

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