The Coup De Grace For French Farmers?

In gently rolling country south of Paris, Geraud de la Farge grows wheat and sunflowers on a 250-acre family farm. His land is productive, thanks to an irrigation system and new equipment that have put him $160,000 in debt. But now he's worried--and angry. He says that cutting subsidies, as the pending world trade deal would require, could drive him off the land. "I'd give up farming, no question," says De La Farge, 35, as he heads to Paris for a national protest rally. "If this agreement goes through, it means revolution in France."

He may not be far wrong. France's farmers are incensed at the preliminary General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade accord. And they have support from Paris, where politicians face parliamentary elections in March. Virtually every party has come out against the European Community's "sellout" of French agriculture.

NEGATIVE INCOME. U.S. negotiators expected an outcry. No other issue pushes so many buttons in France, which industrialized relatively late and pines for its rural roots, explains Chairman Jacques Calvet of auto maker Peugeot. Some 25% of France's citizens lived on farms as recently as 1946. Now it's only 6%, but that's triple the U.S. level. And unlike the U.S., the family farm is still the norm: 80% of French farms are under 125 acres.

Although small, France's farms have invested for efficiency. With the help of $7.7 billion in annual European Community price supports, France is now the world's No. 2 food exporter after the U.S. In May, Paris reluctantly accepted production limits aimed at cutting EC payouts. Now, farmers see the GATT deal as the final blow. For oilseed farmers it will double the $200 revenue loss per acre caused by the EC cutback, says a farmers' association.

Growers say the GATT accord would accelerate the decline of the country's charming but marginal farms. In the Auvergne region of south-central France, ghost-villages stand where small farmers have given up competing with mechanized farms and moved to cities. It's the same rural exodus the U.S. lived through--decades later.

There is one big difference: French farmers are fighting back. During the past year they have dumped food on highways, burned sheep alive, and tried to blockade Paris with tractors. Last fall, such protests won $250 million in state aid. After the GATT accord was announced, farmers trashed McDonald's restaurants, burned Coca-Cola vending machines, and promised a massive Paris rally on Nov. 25--the day Parliament was to debate GATT.

HOT POTATO. France's Socialist rulers swear they'll lobby to renegotiate the pact. If that doesn't work, they'll pass this hot potato to the conservatives, who are sure to win in March. Yet Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, whose term runs to 1995, might have to choose between loyalty to Europe and the mythic tug of rural France. If Britain rejects the Maastricht Treaty on EC union next spring, rural France could win.

French farmers will keep pressing. "For me, the GATT agreement is a catastrophe, I haven't slept for days," says Loire Valley farmer Jacques Siret, 44. He says he may have to quit farming. That would be tough--he has no other skill. He should learn one fast, for changes are afoot in France's charming, subsidized countryside.

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