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LIVING IN FRANCE

EXPLAINED: Why petting cows at the farm show is crucial for French politicians

Farmers represent less than five percent of France's workforce, yet for any French presidential hopeful a trip to the agriculture show and some time petting cows is crucial. Ingri Bergo went along to find out why.

EXPLAINED: Why petting cows at the farm show is crucial for French politicians
French President Emmanuel Macron made sure to honour the finest cattle present at the fair. Photo: AFP

Every year, a small part of Paris transforms into a huge farm. Farmers from all over the France bring their finest sheep, cows and pigs into the capital to show them off at the Salon d’agriculture (Agricultural fair). 

READ MORE: What you need to know about France's most famous agriculture show

It is a rare merging of city and countryside that has, over the years, become increasingly politicised. Now, as the Salon celebrates its 56th anniversary, it has become a no-miss for anyone with political ambitions. 

French media have made something of a sport of measuring how much time the country's presidents dedicate to the Salon. Francois Hollande spent 10 hours in his time, Jacques Chirac a little more than five. Nicolas Sarkozy “never spent more than four,” according to French web media Ici.

Sitting President Emmanuel Macron has made sure to beat all former records. His 14-hour-long visit last year was longest ever of a sitting President. On Saturday, the opening day of the show, he spent a good 12 hours inside chatting with farmers and tasting their products.

Tasting the cheese is a tough job, but someone has to do it. Photo: AFP

Few other professions in France get this much alone time with the President – and the media attention to go with it.

In the week before the Salon kicked off it was headlining French news coverage alongside the sex-scandal involving a Paris Mayor hopeful and the coronavirus.

Paradoxically, farmers do not represent a particularly large part of the French workforce. The number of farmers in France has been steadily declining for decades, from 4 million in 1963 to around 900,000 in 2016. In 2016 farmers represented only 3.6 percent of the active population.

READ MORE: 'Farming doesn't feed us': The story of France's ailing agriculture

So what explains French farmers’ political clout?

“France is gastronomy,” said Nadine, 62, who had traveled from Savoie, near the Swiss border, to the capital to visit the show.

Foreigners know France as a country overflowing with carefully cultivated cheese and wine. It's a stereotype rooted in reality. France is a country that prides itself in its tender entrecôtes (beef) and savoury hams. 

“We probably have more types of cheese than there are days in the year,” said Daniel, 64, who was travelling with Nadine.

“The Salon is a way to make people discover all the good, local products.”

 
 
French people know that they owe these products to their farmers, but that they in turn are a group of society in decline. There were 460,000 French farms in 2019, compared to 750,000 two decades ago.
 
“These are people who work very hard for very little in return,” said Alain, 70.
 
He and his wife Marie-Claude had driven in from their home in Essonne, like they do every year, to show their support for French farmers.

“They try so hard to make it work. It’s like a religion to them,” Alain said.

 

 

 

French politicians know that their people care about rural France and its farmers. Last year, more than 670,000 people (50,000 more than the year before) visited the Salon.

 
At the Salon politicians prove their appreciation for France's fine food culture and show they are proche du peuple (close to the people) – a phrase that echoed from both farmers and visitors on Monday.

“When you’re petting a cow, it doesn’t smell good. But it’s important to do it Because the farmers do it,” Marie-Claude said.

Coming to the salon was to her a way of reminiscing about her childhood in the countryside of Dordogne, southwest France.

Neither Alain nor Marie-Claude were impressed with the President's 12-hour visit on Saturday.

Alain said Macron was not proche du peuple but lit up when asked about former President Jacques Chirac.

“Chirac! Now that was something else. He really was a man of the people,” he said.

Former French President Jacques Chirac never missed the Salon d'Agriculture – except after a car accident in 1979. Photo: AFP

In his time as President of the French Republic, it was Chirac who really refined the art of the agricultural show.

When he visited the Salon – which he did every year except one from 1972 until 2011 – he made a point of talking to everybody and over the years was pictured petting a variety of animals.

“He knew about farming, he was from Corrèze. You really felt that he understood the farmers,” Marie-Claude added. 

“And he was not afraid to muddy his boots!” Alain said.

French farmers work long hours, from early in the morning to late at night. Yet many earn salaries that are far below the French minimum wage. Two out of five earn less than €4,320 a year. 

For Pierrik, 20, and Aurélien, 16, that was a part of the deal that they had reckoned with a long time ago.

“I’ve dreamed about becoming a farmer since I was a kid,” Pierrik said. “It's a passion more than anything.”

Pierrik is currently interning at Aurélien's parents' farm.

They start their day at 6am and kept on going until 7pm (“sometimes longer,” Pierrik said).

The boys were standing next to Légende, a five-year-old Blonde d'Aquitaine cow they had brought to exhibit.

Aurélien proudly explained that Légende was a product of long and careful planning that began at least 15 years before she was born. 

“This is a window into our world,” Aurélien said.

None of them were impressed with their political rulers' efforts to mingle. 

“[Macron] claims to be close to the people, but he didn't take the time to speak to us when he came,” Pierrik said.

 

Others defended the President's efforts.

“A president who spends that many hours inside the Salon is someone who loves his people,” said Laurent Callu, the President of the Paris branch of the national Fédération de la Boucherie et des Métiers de la Viande (Federation of Butchers and Meat professionals, FBMV).

He was standing next to a sealed off ring where visitors were eagerly watching the annual butchery school competition.

Prospective butchers were chopping, slicing and packing large chunks of meat in front of a severe-looking judge.

 

Butchery is an example of a French food related profession that is peppered with national pride.

Prospective butchers undergo a strenuous education programme to obtain their diploma. The competing students were visibly sweating as they worked, frequently checking their watches for the time.

Callu became a butcher himself 35 years ago. When asked if his profession – like farming – was becoming increasingly difficult to live from, he said that “all professions are hard.”

“If you love your profession, it’s not hard.” 

Callu grew up on a farm and first visited the Salon at four years old. 

“I’ve known this all my life. I know how important it is to come here and show what rural France has to offer,” he said.

“Many people today don’t know what a farm is,” he said.

“This is a place where everyone meets. It’s magical.”

Member comments

  1. Jacques Chirac was from Corrèze, not Corsica–“Corse” in French, although as a speaker of both languages I can understand how an Anglophone, especially one who doesn’t know about his regime would make that confusion.

  2. Dear Claire,

    Many thanks for your comment. This is exactly why we need attentive readers!

    You are utterly right, I indeed heard “Corse” and not “Corrèze” – but I should of course have double-checked. It has been corrected.

    Please don’t hesitate to give us a shout-out whenever you spot a mistake.

  3. “Two out of five earn less than €4,320 a year. ”
    There must be a zero missing somewhere…Could you give us the source when citing important information?

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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