France's farm expo: a high-stakes photo op as election looms
With France's election just two months away, glad-handing at the annual farm show is not just a photo op for presidential hopefuls, it's a must.
And this year the candidates had better come bearing concrete plans, not just smiles, union leaders and exhibitors say.
“We're waiting for them,” said Jeremy Decerle, the head of the Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union, complaining that the would-be heads of state have given the distressed farming sector short shrift so far.
“They should be more worried about farmers — and not just next week but 365 days a year,” he told AFP.
Behind Decerle, a huge poster spelled out his union's demands in oversized type, stressing the need for people-oriented policies over those favouring agri-business.
The flagship expo, which opened Saturday and runs until March 5th, brings the countryside to the city, showcasing the wealth of France's agricultural output from all its regions as well as its far-flung islands and former colonies.
This year there are nearly 1,000 exhibitors displaying some 22,000 products, including 2,600 heads of livestock requiring hundreds of tonnes of straw and hay, organisers say.
With spring just around the corner, it is a happy family day out for more than half a million people every year.
But politicians stopping by for the annual ritual that has come to be known as “stroking the cow's behind” need to watch their step.
Conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy lived to rue the day at the 2008 expo when he lost his cool with a punter who refused to shake his hand, saying: “Get lost, dumbass!”
Video of the exchange went viral on the internet. Four years later, when Sarkozy ran for re-election, many of his detractors delighted in turning the phrase against him, and he was turfed out of office.
Last year his Socialist successor Francois Hollande suffered ignominy at the fair in his turn, when farmers furious over collapsing milk prices heckled him and union activists tore down the agriculture ministry's pavilion.
Today, that anger has been replaced by despair in a sector that depends heavily on EU subsidies — on average the aid makes up some 80 percent of farmers' income — and there has been an alarming spike in suicides.
What is more, a community that has traditionally leaned to the right is clearly dismayed by an expenses scandal dragging down the candidacy of conservative Francois Fillon.
“A few weeks ago I had a candidate, but now I'm not so sure,” said Marianne Roussille, 57, who runs a family Cognac distillery in southwest France.
“If they wanted to disgust us, the French, they've outdone themselves,” she said.
Claire Coutard, a 44-year-old exhibiting specialities from the northeastern Vosges region such as plum liqueur, agreed.
“I don't know who I'm going to vote for,” she said. “There's been so much disappointment and now we're wondering if they are going to lie again.”
'Shocked' by Penelopegate
The sentiment was the same at a stand promoting Camembert and other prized products from northern Normandy.
“All our politicians have a hand in it, they're hooligans, mafiosi,” said the 45-year-old exhibitor, who gave his name only as Ghislain.
“I knew who I was going to vote for, but I was shocked by the revelations last month that Fillon's wife Penelope was on the public payroll and appears to have done little to earn her generous salary,” he added, referring to the scandal dubbed Penelopegate.
Fillon's campaign has yet to set a date for his appointment with the salon's mascot — always a prize cow, which is from Brittany this year and named Fine.
Far-right leader and Brittany native Marine Le Pen, who is herself embroiled in a corruption scandal, is set to show up on Tuesday.
Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old upstart former Socialist minister running as a centrist, has a planned visit on Wednesday.
At least this year the fair has been kinder to Hollande, whose popularity has improved since he announced in December that he would not seek re-election in the April-May vote.
Emulating the crowd-pleasing former president Jacques Chirac, Hollande sipped beer for the cameras as he inaugurated the expo on Saturday, bringing farmers “a message of encouragement, support and solidarity”.