José Bové vs. McDonald's: The Making of a National Hero in the French Anti-Globalization Movement
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"Lutter, c'est le plaisir!"
— José Bové
"Une seule chose qui bouge en France, c'est José Bové!"
— Francis Fukuyama
José Bové, a sheep farmer/activist in Aveyron in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, is a modern day Astérix, a mythical Gaul who drubbed foreign intruders centuries ago. In Bové's case, the intruder was McDonald's, the American fast food chain (referred to in a satirical way by Bové and his supporters as "McDo"). On 12 August 1999 Bové and his confrères from the Confédération paysanne, the second largest farmers' union in France, "dismantled" a McDonald's under construction in Millau, a town of approximately 20,000 inhabitants on the wind swept Larzac plateau. Earlier in January 1988 he and his comrades destroyed genetically modified maize in a grain silo in Nérac in the department of Lot-et-Garonne. While he received an eight month suspended sentence for the Nérac incident, the action in Millau brought Bové, the spokesperson for the Confédération paysanne, several weeks in jail but also national and international publicity. At his trial, an estimated 40,000 people from France and around the world showed up to support Bové and his cause.
What triggered Bové's attack on McDonald's in Millau was a dispute between the United States and its World Trade Organization (WTO) supporters on one side and Europe on the other. When the WTO backed the right of the U.S. to export hormone induced beef to Europe and the Europeans resisted, the U.S. imposed heavy duties on certain luxury products as a retaliatory measure. One of the items targeted by the U.S. was Roquefort cheese - the same cheese that Bové produced on his sheep farm. According to the Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein, Bové's actions in Millau represented an attack "against an agricultural model that sees food purely as an industrial commodity rather than the centerpiece of national culture and family life." Bové's counter-attack made him not only a hero in France, but one of the "celebrities" at the massive Seattle, Washington, protest in December 1999, which saw more than 50,000 people demonstrating against the WTO.
The year following the dismantling of McDonald's and the Seattle protest, Bové published a best selling book, Le Monde n'est pas une marchandise, that discussed his altermondialiste views. Since the McDonald's incident Bové has become a national hero in France and leader of the French anti-globalization movement due to several factors: 1) he is charismatic, articulate, and utilizes novel and creative tactics; 2) he taps into national concerns about the quality of the food supply in France; 3) he challenges a threat to French cultural identity; 4) he speaks out against U.S.-led multinational and WTO trade policies; 5) he is an interesting personality for the media, not just in France, but around the world and especially in English-speaking countries; 6) he employs powerful symbols; and 7) the government's commando style arrest of Bové in June 2003 only strengthened his reputation as an important altermondialiste. An examination of these factors will reveal how a contemporary David took on several international Goliaths and transformed himself into a key spokesperson for the anti-globalization movement both inside and outside of France.
Before examining the reasons for Bové's meteoric rise, we must first consider the term "globalization" and its meaning. What is globalization? Is it a reference to a new age of easy access to information, facilitated by fax machines, cell phones, computers and the Internet, paving the way for a revolution in production, communication, and trade? Or is globalization something more, an extension of capitalist relations throughout the world made possible by the technological revolution that we are now witnessing? In this regard, does globalization represent neo-liberal economic policies and a new age of imperialism? For Bové, globalization means an extension of capitalist relations, with both positive and negative aspects. Bové is an important personality because he has raised significant questions about the process of globalization, especially the production of food and WTO trade policy.
Bové's charisma, articulate manner, and creative and novel tactics are an important part of his popularity and success in the anti-globalization movement. His charisma stems in part from his interesting background and his appearance. Although Bové was born in Bordeaux in 1953, he spent the early years of his life, 1956-1959, in Berkeley, California, where his parents were researchers in biochemistry at the University of California. Ironically, his parents later went on to become researchers at the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA). His father, originally from Luxembourg, even became regional director of INRA and a member of the Académie des Sciences. José Bové began his schooling in California and claims he learned to speak English before French. When the Bové family returned to France, the young José attended a bilingual primary school on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais in Paris. Later in life, he participated in several Parisian anti-war demonstrations aimed against American involvement in Vietnam. As a young man he seemed imbued with pacifist, anti-militarist, and anarchist ideas. He began his university studies at the University of Toulouse hoping to teach philosophy. He endured university life for only one year, dropping out and becoming involved in the ecology movement and left-wing politics.
In the early 1970s, after visiting Larzac by chance with his companion Alice Monier and witnessing the first large scale demonstration in an area that has now become a symbol of protest and resistance, this budding activist knew where he wanted to live. He moved to the department of Aveyron and began his life as a sheep farmer, settling in a small hamlet with just a few families. At this point he became involved in protesting the government's plan to create a large military base in Larzac. Later, in 1987, he co-founded the Confédération paysanne. Bové's activism was international even before 1999, the year that catapulted him into the global spotlight. In 1995, for example, he participated in Greenpeace efforts to stop French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, testing re-launched by the newly elected Gaullist president Jacques Chirac.
This interesting and varied background explains, to some extent, his charisma. But part of his charisma, too, is his appearance. He dresses in simple clothes, the clothes of a farmer, and looks like the French version of Lech Walesa, the Polish labor leader who challenged the Soviet government in the 1980s. Bové has short hair and a long drooping moustache, much like Walesa himself. Moreover, Bové's ever-present pipe suggests that he is a calm, thoughtful person, a key ingredient of his charisma.
The new French Astérix is known also for his articulate manner, both in French and in English, which has contributed to his success as an activist. One of the words which he coined and uses with great frequency is "malbouffe" (junk food). His book, Le Monde n'est pas une marchandise and his public statements also reveal a man who expresses himself easily and directly. His verbal directness and ability to counter arguments supporting the WTO, the food supply, genetic modification, and other issues helped to make him a spokesperson for many in France who worry about the impact of globalization on their country. Recently, he even debated Alain Madelin, Minister of Finance and the Economy in 1995 and now head of the Démocratie libérale party, part of Chirac's Union pour la majorité présidentielle (UMP), on French television. The image of an articulate sheep farmer confronting the issue of globalization and its corporate sponsors has helped to galvanize French opinion behind this activist.
His novel and creative tactics also have won him many adherents. On the day of his trial in Millau, for instance, he arrived in an oxcart with a large wheel of Roquefort cheese aloft. He shouted to the crowd, "We shall overcome - save our Roquefort and down with junk food." Then when he emerged from the courthouse following his trial, fully handcuffed, he raised his hands above his head showing the crowd his handcuffs and beaming a large, defiant smile. This was the image of Bové that appeared on the cover of his popular book. Other tactics, too, have aided his cause. For instance, on 19 June 2002 he reported to prison at Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone near Montpellier in an unusual way. He and a group from Confédération paysanne drove a cortege of tractors from his hamlet in Aveyron to the prison, a six hour trek by tractor. A sign on the back of the labor leader's tractor read: "Chirac en prison, Bové a la maison." The drive to prison was a media event and newspapers and the electronic media showed Bové on his tractor with his sign, an image that captured the sentiments of many critical of Chirac and the WTO. Another creative strategy came after his release from prison in August 2003, an incarceration for destroying GM (genetically modified) crops near Montpellier. When the court refused due to parole related conditions to give him permission to travel to Cancun in early September of this year to protest the agricultural policy of the WTO, Bové announced that he would organize a demonstration in France in a small village with a name that sounded very similar to "Cancun" - Cancon in the Lot-et-Garonne. The Midi Libre, one of the key newspapers read in the Midi-Pyrénées and the Languedoc regions, published a photograph of Bové standing before the entrance to Cancon next to the sign with the name of the village. Bové's ability to devise media-catching tactics that often embody humor if not biting satire have greatly aided his visibility in and outside of France.
With respect to tactics, Bové sees himself as a French Gandhi, using non-violent civil disobedience to call attention to injustices. Like Gandhi, Bové realized that time spent in jail would win him more followers. For instance, the year of his trial for dismantling McDonald's, Bové declared to the press, "If prison must be the consequences of action, it will be more difficult for those with economic and financial power than for those who must go to jail." At his trial in Millau, he quoted Gandhi directly, proclaiming that "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." His combination of direct non-violent civil disobedience and humor aided his rise in stature. But unlike Gandhi, Bové has something at his disposal that he has used to his advantage - the Internet. His organization, the Confédération paysanne, has its own sophisticated web site that helps to keep Internet users informed about the organization and protests scheduled against the WTO, artificial food, genetic modification, and other relevant issues.
Despite his Gandhi-like tactics, Bové proclaims that he is an anarcho-syndicalist. Bové once declared, "I am an anarcho-syndicalist. I am closer to Bakunin [the Russian anarchist] than Marx. My references are the Federation of Jaurès in the First International in the last century and the Spanish CNT of 1936." While he has professed a willingness to use violence, especially against companies or corporations, this violence is not aimed specifically against individuals. According to his French biographer, Denis Pingaud, Bové is ideologically closer to Ralph Nader than Arlette Laguiller, the Trotskyite leader of the Lutte ouvrière party. Thus, his unique tactics as well as his charisma and articulate manner have contributed to transforming a sheep farmer into a folk hero in France, the Daniel Cohn-Bendit of the new millennium.
One of the main reasons for Bové's success is that he tapped into deep fears concerning the safety of the food supply in France and on the continent. These fears have grown over the years and culminated with serious concerns in the European Community as a result of dioxin found in chicken, the recall of thousands of cases of Coca-Cola, mad cow disease, and hoof and mouth disease. In attacking McDonald's in Millau, Bové focused attention on the food supply, raising concerns about hormone induced beef used by McDonald's, artificial food, and genetically modified crops like corn. For example, according to Bové: "The greatest danger that genetically modified corn represents as well as other GM crops resides in the impossibility of evaluating the long term consequences and following the effects on the environment, animals, and humans." Referring to McDonald's food as malbouffe, he warned the French that they must control what they eat and not simply permit a U.S.-led multinational corporation to dictate how or what a nation consumes.
Another reason for his success is that he identified and challenged a threat to French cultural identity. France is a nation that is proud of its culinary tradition. Yet today in France there are more than 750 McDonald's, a company that has led the fast food charge in the U.S., France, and around the world. Shockingly, in Paris, once considered the culinary capital of the world, one out of four restaurants is now a fast food establishment! Bové understood the way that McDonald's penetrated France and its consequences and realized that "McDomination" would continue unless protests emerged.
Today, McDonald's has approximately 28,000 restaurants worldwide and opens about 2,000 new restaurants each year. McDonald's success rests on two pillars - the company produces inexpensive food even though it may be artificial, and it produces standardized food around the world, leading consumers to think that they know what they order regardless of the locale. Uniformity in food consumption and cheap meals often desired by people with little time or inclination to cook at home worry many in France who are proud of their nation's culinary tradition. Moreover, the rise of fast food restaurants makes it difficult for aspiring restaurateurs to open an establishment and make it successful. The cheap burger, fries, and play land at McDonald's attract customers who in earlier times preferred a true restaurant experience. Food is central to French cultural identity, yet what people consume and how they consume it are changing due to fast food establishments like McDonald's and the "branding" (the selling of brands rather than products) that is so much a part of the strategy of multinational companies in the consumer culture.
Bové's success, too, is due to the fact that he, like David against Goliath, stood up to a U.S.-led multinational corporation, not to mention the WTO. McDonald's is a huge corporation, as attested to by the worldwide number of establishments noted above and also by its economic clout in the nation where it originated, the U.S. In the United States McDonald's hires one million people, more than any other public or private corporation. It is the largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes and the second largest purchaser of chicken. Furthermore, the McDonald's corporation is, surprisingly, the largest owner of retail property in the world, earning a majority of its profits not from selling food but from collecting rents. It spends more money on advertising and marketing than any other brand, replacing Coca-Cola as the world's most recognized brand.
According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, McDonald's and the fast food phenomenon launched what we now know as globalization, getting an early start on the phenomenon that is now upon us. Schlosser charges that "the fast food industry has triggered the homogeneity of our [American] society. Fast food has hastened the malling of our landscape, widening the chasm between the rich and the poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism abroad." Bové expressed many of these ideas himself in leading the attack on McDonald's in France. Moreover, since the French Revolution, challenging centralized authority, whether it be national or international, has been an important part of the French political tradition.
In challenging a large U.S.-dominated multinational, Bové tapped into French fears about the consequences of corporate mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing. There is a genuine concern in France and elsewhere that the battle of the twenty-first century may not be conflict among nations, or even international terrorism, but controlling the power of corporations. According to one author, "The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first century will no doubt be dominated by a struggle to curtail corporate power." In France over the past few decades there has been a spate of privatizations and acquisitions despite the fact that the French are accustomed to a state that owns large sectors of the economy. The former socialist government of Lionel Jospin (1997-2002) sold off more state-owned assets than the five previous governments combined. Corporate power worries the French, and Bové's attack on a key symbol of international corporate power resonated well in France because the economic landscape is quickly changing and creating economic insecurities for French citizens, including farmers.
In challenging McDonald's, Bové also challenged the power of the World Trade Organization and fueled the fires in France against globalization carried out under the authority of the WTO. For Bové, the WTO is simply an expression of corporate power, an organization designed to benefit corporations and not necessarily citizens of the world. According to Bové:
In France, McDonald's is a key target for those opposed to WTO-style globalization. While polls show that a majority of French believe that globalization boosts growth, many worry that it also threatens their identity and may lead to greater inequalities. Fifteen years ago foreign ownership of French firms stood at only ten percent; today, however, more than forty percent of the shares on the French Bourse are foreign owned, nearly forty-four percent of the CAC 40 is foreign owned, and thirty-six percent of state bonds are owned by non-residents.
Another ingredient that explains Bové's rise as a national hero is that he is an interesting personality who caught the attention of the media. He makes for good television and good photojournalism, especially given his background and appearance. An articulate sheep farmer using Gandhi and Martin Luther King-like tactics to challenge the power of McDonald's, the WTO, and genetic modification conjured up a powerful image for the media. Moreover, his ability to speak English made him and his movement accessible to the English-language press, often a twenty-four-hour-a-day press constantly seeking news stories. During his trial in Millau he appeared on the cover of the Washington Post, and CNN even rented an apartment near the courthouse in Millau to cover his court appearance. Coverage of Bové abroad only added to the star-like quality of this experienced activist. The image of a sheep farmer taking on an American-led international corporate power and doing it with great pizzazz, followed by the publication of his book which sold more than 100,000 copies, insured Bové folk hero status, especially since he led a movement with anti-American overtones. The fear that an American corporation was dictating French tastes in food and that the World Trade Organization favored the U.S. at the expense of Europe and the rest of the world played well in the French electronic and print media.
He has caught the attention of the media, too, because he has employed powerful symbols in his protests. An obvious example already mentioned is McDonald's, the most recognized brand in the word. Utilizing McDonald's as a target provided Bové with access to a vast economic system, namely global corporate capitalism. Bové also has cultivated the symbol of the small farmer from la France profonde to promote his cause. For many, la France profonde is still an idyllic place that represents the "good old days" of a France now confronting numerous challenges on both the domestic and international fronts. This activist with a global focus knows, too, that sixty percent of the word's population works in agriculture. Thus, the symbol of the small farmer confronting agribusiness corporations became a key symbol of the resistance to globalization. He has used also the Roquefort cheese produced in his region as a symbol. As previously mentioned, he "cheesed it up," so to speak, at his Millau trial and at the protest in Seattle. Another powerful symbol he has employed is Larzac itself, a longtime symbol of protest that dates back to the early 1970s. Bové's original motivation for moving to Larzac sprang from the budding protest movement he found in southern Aveyron in the early 1970s. He has mastered the art of using symbols to communicate his message.
A last factor that explains Bové's rise in popularity is the Chirac regime itself, especially the commando-like raid of the activist's residence on 22 June 2003 at six o'clock on a Sunday morning when a helicopter swooped down on his hamlet and dozens of police surrounded his home. After the police broke through the door of his house, he was arrested without a struggle and flown by helicopter to the Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone prison near the capitol of Languedoc to serve a ten month prison term for destroying genetically modified corn. The police raid was videotaped by a neighbor and shown numerous times on French television. To many, it looked like an excessive use of force against a labor leader who had not acted violently against any individual. The left, including the socialist (PS) and communist (PCF) parties, quickly condemned the Chirac government for such use of force and the Confédération paysanne called for demonstrations at the prison and throughout France. Bové himself charged in an interview with Le Monde that the government had "a will to criminalize the labor movement." Bové then told the newspaper's readers, "The message is clear, public order rather than justice." An editorial in Le Monde called Bové's arrest "a stupidity" and insisted that his incarceration would turn the labor leader into a martyr. According to Le Monde, sixty percent of the French favored Bové's release. Furthermore, more than forty researchers at CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement), INRA, and IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement) wrote an open letter to the president of the Republic, which protested Bové's arrest and which Le Monde published in part. These researchers stressed that the scientific community was divided on the question of GM crops. Although Chirac would later reduce his sentence by four and a half months as part of the 2003 Bastille day clemency program, and the court in Montpellier on 2 August 2003 agreed to release Bové and let him serve out his sentence by working in the gardens of the Larzac Hospital in Millau, the military-style arrest helped to canonize this high profile activist in the eyes of many in France, especially on the left.
One measure of Bové's popularity in France was seen at "Larzac 2003," a protest rally in early August planned by the Confédération Paysanne and other organizations to prepare the French for the Cancun meeting of the WTO. Since Bové was released from jail just days before the rally, he was the main attraction. In the deadly heat of August, nearly 300,000 people showed up to participate, a number that surprised even Bové and his organization. What is more amazing is that this rally was done without the full scale participation of the unions, especially the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), Force ouvrière (FO), or Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT). It was also organized outside of the political parties. Of course, Bové benefited from a convergence of forces at Larzac 2003, namely WTO protesters as well as the social protest movements that began building in France in the spring due to the government's plans to harmonize public and private retirement, decentralize the education system, and change the rules for temporary workers in the entertainment industry. Larzac 2003 was a highly successful anti-government rally.
In conclusion, while most would agree that globalization is an irreversible trend, critics like Bové call attention to the problems that must be addressed. For instance, Bové and others claim that globalization reduces standards. Corporations that can operate anywhere in the world often seek places with the lowest environmental standards and weakest labor laws. Thus, governments often compete to entice investors with ever weakening standards. Consequently, globalization may have a negative impact on the environment and may impoverish workers. Globalization, too, strips governments of their sovereign powers. For the critics, all of this means that globalization paves the way for global capitalism. Moreover, Bové insists that the WTO is not a democratic organization since members of this body are not elected but appointed, and the organization conducts its business in secrecy. According to Bové, the WTO favors the rich nations at the expense of the poor ones.
Moreover, those supporting free trade often argue that the trickle down effects from deregulation are positive, such as reductions in poverty. The experience of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Association between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, suggests that there is a poor record for the labor and environmental side of the agreement. Poverty, too, has not been reduced in a country like Mexico, where fifty-three million of the one hundred million inhabitants of the nation live in poverty. Since 1994, the beginning of NAFTA, 1.7 million Mexican workers in the agricultural sector have lost their jobs, and there has been an increased concentration of wealth, with the richest ten percent of Mexicans garnering forty-six percent of the total income. It is clear that globalization needs to be monitored and the rights of citizens protected against the greed sometimes associated with global corporate power.
In France, an interesting organization has emerged that is dedicated to combating globalization and liberalization, at least the negative aspects of these trends. The organization is called ATTAC - Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens. ATTAC was inspired by Viviane Forrester's L'Horreur économique, first published in 1996, a book that became a best seller and was translated into numerous languages. ATTAC, which has several thousand members, calls for a tax on the flow of international capital, to be used to help poor countries. Bové supports ATTAC as a way of restoring ethics and democracy to corporations.
While Bové is not completely opposed to globalization, he maintains that it must be policed to prevent corporations and shareholders addicted to profits from reducing life to mere commodities and the "logic" of market exchange. Although Bové began his protest by attacking McDonald's and genetic modification of food, he has inspired many critics to speak out against what he sees as an undemocratic globalization process. To some small degree he contributed to the moral victory of the G 21 (a grouping of poor nations that included Brazil and China) at the September 2003 meeting of the WTO, where poor nations and the rich northern hemisphere failed to agree on such matters as agricultural subsidies paid to farmers in developed nations, which stifle agriculture in the Third World. What Bové undoubtedly hopes for is to give a human face to globalization to protect citizens' rights and national sovereignty. This sheep farmer from Aveyron has inspired an international protest movement that will surely continue to demand protection for human rights, including the right to control the supply and safety of one's food.
Bové and the phenomenon that he represents are products of factors that are internal and external to France. Like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he has the charisma and the skills to lead a protest movement that has taken on international dimensions. Bové and the anti-globalization movement that he represents - perhaps a new "International" according to Le Nouvel Observateur, - show us that activism is still very much alive in the western world and that unbridled capitalism is not necessarily the end of ideology. Bové has not only succeeded in uniting le milieu populaire, including farmers and intellectuals; he has also raised significant questions about the functioning of multinationals, the WTO, and the safety of the food supply, especially genetically modified crops. In France, Bové represents a post-soixante-huitard phenomenon and perhaps the rise of a new, new left. Bové's next challenge will be to shift the discussion from the negativism implied by the anti-globalization movement to a specific debate about democracy in France and elsewhere, convincing others that "another world is possible," a theme now used by the Confédération paysanne. While he has helped to create what some are calling "the movement of movements," this is a fragmented group of dissidents who sometimes have different agendas. Nevertheless, his neo-humanism has raised important questions about global economic power that need to be addressed in France and abroad. The contradictions inherent in the current globalization process, such as WTO agricultural policy, will insure more protests and mass movements as concerned citizens around the globe attempt to improve the human condition and control the global economic forces that we now confront.
I would like to thank the Research Council at Niagara University for awarding me a summer grant which facilitated the completion of this manuscript. Also, I must thank Denise and Maurice Aldon for their assistance with documentation for this project. Renée, my wife, read the manuscript and made valuable suggestions for which I am most grateful.
For a who's who of the leadership of the anti-globalization movement, see Capital, Jan. 2002, 40-46. The June 2000 issue of the American magazine Business Week listed Bové as one of the fifty rising stars in Europe (see Le Nouvel Observateur, 29 June - 5 July 2000, 54).
See Noël Mamère and Jean-François Narbonne, Toxiques Affaires: De la dioxine à la vache folle (Paris: Editions Ramsay, 2001); and Dominique Predali, Enquête sur les dessous de l'agroalimentaire (Paris: Editions du Dauphin, 2001.)
According to Confédération paysanne, the number of people working in agriculture in France stood at 1,240,000 in 1980; 939,000 in 1990; and only 663,000 in 2000 (see Campagnes Solidaires, no. 173, (April 2003), III.
The industrialized nations pay out $300 billion in subsidies to their farmers, which retards the development of agriculture in the Third World, where 70% of the population earn their livelihood from agriculture. See Le Monde, 7 Aug. 2003.