By Drake Bennett For nine days spanning late February and early March, the hottest ticket in Paris was something an American might be forgiven for thinking was an outsized 4-H fair. The hangar-like halls of the Porte de Versailles convention center were filled with bleating sheep, the smell of reblochon cheese, and flashbulbs popping everywhere. The Salon International de l'Agriculture, France's yearly homage to its countryside, had come to town.
Among the 600,000 visitors who showed up to ogle and taste were all of France's myriad presidential candidates. Indeed, planning it so that none of them overlapped proved quite a logistical feat for the organizers. On the Salon's opening day, incumbent Jacques Chirac went around patting prize-winning cows on the rear end, as he famously does every year.
PASTORAL IDEAL. Started in 1964 as a trade show, the Salon has grown into an immense symbol of all things edible and French. And while it celebrates the quality and richness of French agriculture, it's also selling a nostalgic vision of France -- the idea defended by anti-globalization activist José Bové against the rapacious designs of Ronald McDonald.
It's hard to miss that sense of rustic France in the paternal glow of dairy farmer Eugène Corbet as he describes to an engrossed audience the upbringing and diet of his champion normande (an enormous cow with spots like a dalmation's). Or at the food stand where the couple offering samples of cassis also appear in the bucolic photos behind them, inspecting the currants from which the sweet liqueur is made. There's even an on-site butcher shop, its display cases trimmed in the tricolor of the French flag and full of hanging carcasses, horse steaks, pig's feet, and sea-cucumber-like cow tongues.
However, the small farms and locally made cheeses don't come cheap. France's farmers, like their counterparts in the other 14 European Union nations, are generously subsidized under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. CAP handouts, a combination of price supports and direct aid, add up to more than $35 billion a year -- half the EU's total annual budget.
CULTURAL PATRIMONY. Unsurprisingly, EU subsidies are under attack by everyone from African nations, which see them as unfair protectionism, to EU member states like Britain, which get less in subsidies than they pay out. In truth, everyone agrees that CAP needs to be overhauled to meet the requirements of the World Trade Organization and avoid breaking the bank when EU expansion brings on board Eastern Europe's poorer, farm-heavy economies.
Of course, the debate over French agriculture has never been a matter of cold cash. Farmers make up a mere 2.5% of France's active workers, and their numbers continue to drop, but they control a priceless patch of cultural patrimony. In the public imagination, their role is as much to preserve the countryside as to produce anything out of it.
Here's Prime Minister (and presidential candidate) Lionel Jospin, quoted in the newspaper Libération, on farm subsidies: "Farmers offer our country essential and noneconomic services, and contribute to the management of the countryside: It is legitimate to pay them for this service."
"CONSUMERS ARE NERVOUS." In the face of the recent mad-cow and foot-and-mouth scares, however, the French public has had cause to take a less romantic look at its agriculture. Many charge that, driven in part by price supports, farmers have increasingly moved toward an overintensive agriculture that helped cause the disease outbreaks. In opening this year's Salon, its president, Christian Patria, acknowledged this tension: "After the recent crises, consumers are nervous and display a certain distrust. They need to be reassured."
Whether or not they are depends on what they're looking for. Sneaking past the "Professionals Only" sign at the entrance to Hall 2.1 puts me in a space with a distinctly different feel from the other halls. The Salon Professionnel de l'Elevage is a new feature this year, and its high-tech conference room and presentations on topics such as "the use of large white pigs in models of European pork selection" emphasize the Salon's roots as a trade show.
The agriculture here is not picturesque, and wandering between the towering tractors, I'm reminded that France's $36.5 billion in agricultural exports in 2000 put it second in the world to America's $70.9 billion. Granted, it's a distant second, but considering France's much smaller size, that's not bad.
This also means that French farming is, in bulk sectors like grain, quite intensive. It also has the bugbears of modern agriculture to prove it, including huge conglomerates and increasing pesticide and fertilizer pollution. These developments don't mean French farmers (any more than their American confrères) are ready to face the vagaries of the world market without their subsidies, but they do give a glimpse of what's ahead. In years to come, the Salon's visitors may have even more cause for nostalgia. Bennett is an editorial assistant in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau