José Bové's civil disobedience campaigns against GM crops are respected by many French people. And France is yet to ratify a 2001 EU directive on GMby Tim King / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
The last time the police wanted to arrest my near neighbour José Bové, they came at dawn, with full military back-up. Not that Bové is violent towards humans—his crime was the destruction of rice seedlings. But he’s a mythical figure, and a Maginot line of his defenders had ringed the farm. To outwit them, the camouflaged police commando crept stealthily through the scattered bushes, hiding behind the weirdly shaped rocks of the desolate Larzac plateau. Then, at 6am sharp, they rushed silently across the farmyard, ruthlessly scattering chickens, burst through the door of the house, stormed up the stairs and seized the dormant Bové. At the same time, a military helicopter came skimming low over the tents, yurts and bivouacs, and hovered inches above the earth as Bové was hurried, handcuffed, from the house. The tousled, sleepy heads of his human shield blinked up at the sky in astonished impotence as their ward and leader was whisked away to prison.
That was last time. This time it’ll be more difficult: it is not the police who will be coming with all that Boy’s Own back-up, but rather the bailiffs. And it’s not Bové’s body they want, but his money—or failing that, his property.
Last autumn, two appeal courts imposed damages totalling €300,000 on a group of anti-GM activists, including Bové, for destroying GM maize and corn belonging to Pioneer and Biogemma, two seed research companies. In France, responsibility for collecting such damages lies with the aggrieved. “There’s no question of paying,” cried Bové. “We’re not giving them a sou.” Realising that the “judgement of French justice,” had been refused, Biogemma and the others turned to the bailiffs. Bové’s media-savvy lawyer immediately declared a guérilla judiciaire to avoid the seizures. Anything for good cinema.
Bové is a major figure in France, a potential presidential candidate on the vibrant left-of-left. He has come a long way since leaping into the headlines seven years ago by dismantling his local McDonald’s with a bulldozer. But the campaign against “bad food” has not gone well since—the rebuilt McDonald’s is now Millau’s second biggest tourist attraction after Norman Foster’s new viaduct, and the number of French families eating processed food continues to increase exponentially. So Bové has now turned his fire on globalisation. If anti-mondialisation is now a household word for fighting evil, it is due largely to Bové. He has made a career defying the law for his political beliefs.
Civil disobedience is an honourable defence in French courts. Stemming from the revolution, it gained intellectual respectability after the French publication of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. With these antecedents, activists don’t need to hide behind anonymous death threats, as in Britain, or creep around furtively in balaclavas; the responsible citizen proudly bares his or her face to the world’s press and police archives. The reaping scythe, potent symbol of France’s rural past, is much more agreeable to the urban majority than the truncheon and riot shield used by the oppressive state. By going to prison for his beliefs, Bové has won the approval of the masses.
Now the faucheurs volontaires (“free reapers”) have a new defence, linking the existing “state of necessity”—you may damage someone else’s property if you do so to prevent greater damage—with the first article of the charter on the environment, recently proudly added to the French constitution: “Everyone has the right to live in a balanced environment which shows due respect for health.” In December, lawyers for 49 faucheurs who had destroyed fields of GM corn belonging to Monsanto used this defence. They argued to an Orléans court that GM crops present an unacceptable danger because of the “uncontrolled spread of their genes.” The court agreed—despite pleading guilty, the 49 defendants were allowed to walk free.
All this makes Michel Debrand, director general of Biogemma, and his colleagues in Monsanto, Pioneer and other GM seed companies, very angry. “On the one hand, the government insists that we publish the exact location of all our test sites on the internet; on the other they do nothing to protect our property. These faucheurs volontaires announce to the press when and where they will strike; the police, arms folded, watch.” Biogemma is suing the French state for €25m for failing to protect it. “Every year, between half and two thirds of our research is destroyed. It’s very difficult to do anything serious.”
A European directive on GM production dating from 2001 would end the market-distorting anomaly in which France imports enormous quantities of GM soybean and maize but cannot produce the crops itself. The directive has yet to be ratified by the government. If it continues to drag its feet until September, it faces a fine. The bill enshrining the directive comes before parliament at the end of March. But given the fractious atmosphere in the country, and that any move by bailiffs to seize Bové’s property will unleash more anti-GM propaganda, the bill is not guaranteed an easy passage. In the end, France may opt for the heroic gesture of civil disobedience—refusing to pay the fine and, like Bové, calmly awaiting the bailiffs.