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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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