THE WORLD FROM...La Sarthe, France

European Community reforms and global competition take their toll on the sweet life of French farmers

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THREE consecutive years of drought in La Sarthe, a largely agricultural region of France southwest of Paris, have had little effect on the picture of bucolic splendor the area presents.

Late summer rains have provided fresh grass for a backdrop of softly textured scenes of earth-toned farmhouses, Holstein cows grazing pastures delineated by purple hedgerows, and trapezoidal fields of drying feed corn. Yet the peace and security exuding from the Sarthois countryside contrast with the sentiments the men and women who work the region's fields express.

For the modest grain, poultry, dairy, and vegetable farmers here who thought the world was theirs to feed, the world has suddenly become a set of economic equations that dictate hard realities. These include an accelerated disappearance of many of the region's farmers, and larger, less familial farms in a context of tight international competition.

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"Here you can still combine a sense of purpose with calm, with fresh air, with pleasant scenery all around, but that is what they want to destroy," says Alain Leroy, a grain and dairy farmer just outside the village of Pruille-le-Chetif. Mr. Leroy does not immediately specify whom he means by "they," but the rest of his conversation and similar comments from neighboring farmers point a finger at the European Community, French officials, and even United States President Bush.

At the heart of La Sarthe's troubled calm is the EC's reform of its Common Agriculture Policy, approved this spring. Designed to reduce the EC's huge farm-support budget, which includes more than $50 billion in annual farm subsidies, the reform aims to cut farm production by "freezing" farmland out of production.

European farmers will be paid not to produce - a system well-known to American farmers, but which has left French farmers especially dismayed. What has shocked farmers here is that they are being asked to pull their good land from production even as they witness, on their TVs, starvation and want in places like Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.

Critics of the Community's farm policies argue that the EC has caused plenty of misery for the world's poorer farmers with its system of market-snatching export subsidies. The EC's reform, by progressively cutting back on export subsidies, will make European farmers more aware of the world market, critics add.

Most farmers in La Sarthe acknowledge that the EC could not continue inflating its agriculture budget, and that some reform was necessary. But they worry that other agriculture exporters will take advantage of the EC now to steal its markets. That is where President Bush comes in.

When Bush announced more than $1 billion in new agriculture export subsidies earlier this month, the move was largely viewed elsewhere as electoral largesse designed to win the farm vote in the US presidential campaign. But La Sarthe's farmers see it as a blow against a downed competitor.

"Europe took advantage of America's embargo on Soviet grain sales to develop its markets, and now Bush sees an opportunity, while the EC is figuring out its reform, to take some of Europe's markets," says another Pruille farmer, Isabelle Leballeur. "It's not action that encourages international cooperation," she adds, "but it's the way the world's going."

The world is still embraced here, with its hungry who need to be fed. But for the farmers of La Sarthe, that sense of mission is being crowded out by an increasingly competitive world that has little regard for their region's picturesque and peaceful, but not always competitive, family farms.

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