Editor’s Note: José Bové and nine other militants were put on trial July 30 by the Correctional Tribunal of Millau, for demolishing a McDonald’s under construction in that small town in southeastern France. Bové and 300 other farmers, representing the French Peasants Confederation, attacked the site with a tractor, crowbars, and “other implements” on August 12, 1999. Damages amounted to 750,000 francs ($107,000). The militants were reacting against the American sanctions on Roquefort cheese (a 100 percent tax), enforced after France banned imports on U.S. beef because of hormone additives. The trial drew 30,000 protesters, who see Bové as a symbol of the battle against globalization. The presiding judge is withholding Bové’s verdict until September 13 – but the ten-month sentence requested by the prosecutor will likely be suspended.
When I stepped off the plane at Marseilles in June, my wife informed me we were going camping with friends in Millau, a town sixty miles north of Montpelier, in the Larzac region famous for its Roquefort cheese. I was back in Southern France for the summer, where we had bought a village house twelve years ago. My wife stayed on to raise the kids, while I earned money teaching in Texas. I spend five months of the year in Provence.
“It’s going to be a French version of Woodstock,” she told me. I was excited. I may have been the first poet to write a poem on the “Battle in Seattle,” for Sulfur, a literary quarterly issuing its final number last January. I got my W.T.O. protest poem in as my final salute to Sulfur readers.
On to Millau. Lots of people, a big rock concert scheduled the next evening with some of France’s top bands (Zebda, Noir Désire, and Rude Boy System) playing for free, and of course, the trial of José Bové and nine other farmers of the Peasant Confederation, who trashed the construction of a new McDonald’s restaurant here a year ago. McDo (pronounced “Mack Dough”) stands for all the mal bouffe (junk food) thought to be killing off French culture; bashing a few McDo’s was the beginning of a new French Resistance led by Bové, a sheep farmer supplying milk to the Roquefort cheese makers while pursuing his own Marxist-Leninist revolution in post-Soviet Europe.
Our friend Claud – driving at speeds of ninety miles per hour or better – got us to Millau by midnight, where a crowd of 30,000 was expected. A gentle, gray-haired Socialist let us share her camping space for the night; she was an old soldier in the ideological wars, and while we ate a supper of cheese, wine, and a few hunks of sausage, she sat up telling us her adventures on other protest marches. We were up on a plateau rimmed with the granite peaks of the Midi-Pyrénées, on a turn of the Tarn River.
In the morning, throngs of people milled in the streets carrying banners, handing out leaflets against O.G.M. (genetically modified foods), AIDS in Africa, women’s unemployment, tax-free corporations, junk food, mondialisation (the global economy). A trio came along with burger buns covering eyes, ears, and mouth – “See no evil….” McDo symbols everywhere. A lot of Sixties types, like ourselves, but the majority were college kids from across Europe; many, like my daughter, veterans of the Euro-March, last May’s big anti-capitalism march from Brussels to Cologne. We were happy to see a new generation taking to the streets.
Under the plane trees were tables heaped with brochures from groups representing everything from GreenPeace to the French anti-nuclear movement to hard-Left parties cobbled together out of the rubble of Communism. Bové’s rallying cry, Le monde n’est pas une marchandise! (The world is not a commodity!) was blazoned on T-shirts, posters, on the hay wagon that brought Bové and the other defendants to the Palace of Justice.
Newspapers were calling Millau the “Seattle on the Tarn,” but no one could believe how big the crowds were. Streets jammed; the courthouse was barricaded as a crush of people surged by to glimpse the big wooden doors of the Palace of Justice, where the trial was grinding on. Lots of kids listening to speeches in the square; Paul Aries, a sociologist researching the cult-like organization of McDonald’s, described the burger as a kind of evil breast nursing the young. Big cheers from the crowd. Lori Wallach, representing Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, gave a rousing speech to the masses: “We will win this one!” Other slogans coined in Millau, “The end of the American myth!” and “No to Commerce Über Alles!”
By late afternoon, word got out that the trial was over, and Bové came to the square like a prizefighter mobbed by lawyers, friends, and the press. No judgment yet, but no stiff penalties expected. Twenty years ago he fought the building of an army base in the lush farming country of Larzac by seizing a farm house and daring the military to evict him; meanwhile he encouraged other farmers to buy up available land and deed square-meter lots to friends. It would have taken the government a half-century to pursue eminent domain on every parcel. Millau was his town, the site of his personal campaigns against big government and big business.
The concert drew a record 150,000 people; we sat across the river listening to the speeches between songs, and hearing the slow roars of a vast audience well up out of the haze of floodlights.
The next day we followed the crowds to a long meadow set up with a stage and loud speakers. Ronald McDonald was carried in on the shoulders of a gang of red shirts chanting anti-Mac slogans over a bullhorn. Bové and a handful of other speakers showed up and gave rousing victory speeches, while the press aimed their long telescopic lenses at anything that moved. It was hot, but the crowd stayed to the end.
Everyone talked of Davos, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and now Millau. The movement had come back to Europe, to stir up old leftist passions against the global threat of American business. Bové’s quiet talk and big smile inspired people; he was fighting for French identity and its folkways, its eccentricities against the slick, packaged, de-culturalized vision exported by America. The French embraced him like a new Jean Moulin, the great Resistance fighter martyred by the Germans during the Occupation. Bové had rammed his tractor into a symbol of the last great superpower on earth.
Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, once said that it was American public schools that achieved the impossible in a land of nothing but immigrants – they had molded a single overarching character onto a continent of foreigners. But it was, to quote Patrick Moynihan on the price of assimilation, a “terrible bargain”: you had to give up your own ethnic identity to fit in. Everything in America is a metaphor of that assimilating process – white bread, weak beer, diluted television, malls, suburban sprawl, clone cities, endless asphalt, McDonald’s and Wal-Marts. We achieved the goal of becoming one nation out of many, but largely by destroying what made the many interesting. We have a manufactured, manipulated unity, through what we consume and how we live. It doesn’t spring from the soul. Not yet, anyway. We are products of our products, and because they are uniform and impersonal, we have become like them.
The French have put up their hands and refuse to give up their social life, their finicky foods and odd ways. They want to preserve them against a future of silent downtowns and TV rooms, where families eat pizza out of a box and scatter to their computers. It’s coming here, anyway. Each year I see a few feet more of frozen food in the supermarket aisles, a few feet less of fresh vegetables and fruits. Women work full-time, and don’t cook as often. The men are commuters, and eat in fast-food restaurants before the long drive home. The kids love America’s painless modernism, with its rootlessness and lack of memory. It appeals to adolescents bored with long dinners and adult conversation. But Bové touched a nerve, and woke up a country to an imminent loss of soul. And an imminent threat of obesity to some of the sveltest people in western civilization. Thin is in here, but the Mac is beginning to beg for spandex slacks and floppy blouses.
Now the talk is all about Prague, next stop on the resistance express. Half the people I spoke with in Millau are headed there this September. Meanwhile, Italy is fighting not only McDo, but the European Community and its government seat, Brussels, for legislating food. Italians have a new movement called “Slow Food,” and now “Slow Cities,” where globalization is a curse word. Don’t mess with Italy and pasta. Even Spain and Portugal are getting the message and fighting for “local food,” or real food. They’re on to you, Ronald.
Poet Paul Christensen teaches literature and writing at Texas A&M University. His literary memoir, West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas, is forthcoming from Texas A&M University Press.