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

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Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
Why petting cows at the Paris farm show is crucial for French politicians
Jacques Chirac demonstrating the art of the French farm show in 2011. Photo by GEORGES GOBET / AFP POOL / AFP

It's always a major part of the political landscape, but this year farming unions have thrown down the gauntlet to Emmanuel Macron ahead of his regular visit to the Salon de l'Agriculture. Here's why this Paris farm show is so important.

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

The week-long event is a lot of fun for the roughly 600,000 people who attend, but for politicians it can be a more fraught affair, and this year more than ever.

5 things to know about France's biggest farm show

As has become his routine, Macron plans to visit on the first day of the show on Saturday - but the head of France's largest farmers' union says this visit "cannot be like every other year".

Arnaud Rousseau of the FNSEA union has challenged Macron to "take on board the level of expectations" when he talks to farmers at the show. His challenge comes as the French government scrambles to present new legislation that will prevent a resurgence in the farm protests that saw roads blockaded across France in January. 

 

But how did spending a day petting cows become such a vital skill for anyone hoping for a career in French politics?

Face time

French media have made something of a sport of measuring how much time the country's presidents dedicate to the Salon. François Hollande paid a 10-hour visit during his presidency, Jacques Chirac a little more than five per year while Nicolas Sarkozy “never spent more than four,” according to French web media Ici.

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Meanwhile President Emmanuel Macron's 14-hour-long visit in 2018 was the longest ever of a sitting President.

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

France's President Emmanuel Macron with champion bovine Ovalie at the Salon d l'Agriculture in 2023. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

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. Farmers represent only around three percent of the working population.

However, their political importance is out-size. That's not only because, as the January protests demonstrated, they have the power to bring large parts of the country to a halt, but also because of the part they play in France's image of itself.

Food

“France is gastronomy,” Nadine, 62, from Savoie, near the Swiss border, told The Local at the 2019 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 on its high-quality farm-reared produce from cheese to meat, vegetables to fruit.

“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.

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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.

Man of the people

All of which explains why the Salon is important - but for politicians there is an extra aspect.

Not only are they expected to show their appreciation of France's fine food culture by tasting the wine, cheese, sausage etc on offer, they must also demonstrate that they are proche du peuple - close to the people or a man/woman of the people. 

This is where the cow-petting comes in. 

“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 explained.

 

Alain added that 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

The Chirac effect

It was Chirac, during his time as president, who really refined the art of the farm 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.

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"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 added.

Not only have all French presidents since Chirac made a point of visiting the farm show, but so has anyone with any political ambitions.

It's likely that almost all French ministers will visit over the week of the farm show this year, as well as the prominent opposition politicians.

Marine Le Pen is a particular devotee, as her party has worked hard over the years to position itself as being on the farmers' side against the 'elites' and the EU. 

This year, as politicians fight to either find a way out of the farming crisis or profit from it, it's likely that there will be more politicians than ever glad-handing among the cows.

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