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In increasingly urban France, farmers still wield political clout

France's rural community is shrinking, but candidates in next week's presidential election are careful to woo farmers, who turn out in higher rates than other voters.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / April 16, 2012

French President and candidate for the 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy (r.) listens to an unidentified farmer, Thursday, March 29, in Fabregues, southern France, during a campaign tour.

Eric Feferberg/AP

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Vasselay, France

When President Nicolas Sarkozy praised farming as "a high-tech sector indispensable to the economy" at a meeting of France's biggest farmers union last month, cereal producer Etienne Gangneron felt vindicated.

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"We’ve put agriculture back to the center of the political debate," says Mr. Gangneron, who is also vice president of the union, FNSEA. "We want to show that French agriculture is alive and well, and it makes the country thrive." 

Farmers are a critical part of the national identity of Europe’s top farming nation. They are the guardians of the good food, joie de vivre, vineyards, and idyllic countryside for which France is known.

But with 18,000 farms closing every year for more than a decade, farmers' clout is on the decline. The election of Mr. Sarkozy, France’s first urban president, heralded a new era. Farmers soon resented him for his blunders at farm shows and his support for environmental regulations they view as bureaucratic and stifling. They also blame his government for not doing enough to lower the cost of hiring seasonal workers. 

"Sarkozy’s disinterest is the reflection of a society that has changed," Gangneron says.

Since Sarkozy's election in 2007, Germany has overtaken France as Europe’s first agricultural food exporter.  Gangneron says Sarkozy has listened to "ideological groups," rather than the farmers themselves. 

"A lot of farmers have not digested this period," says Gangneron. "People are saying 'I am fed up with the Sarkozy era.' "

"We say, 'Stop! Stop the decline! Stop this ideological dialogue on the environment,' " he says. "There has to be a balance with our economic interest."

Their discontent was reflected in the defeat of Sarkozy’s party in the 2010 regional elections, when the country's 22 regional councils veered to the left.

The defeat roused Sarkozy. While addressing 1,700 farming professionals in Montpellier last month, Sarkozy focused on agriculture competitiveness, pledging to lower the cost of hiring seasonal workers, as Germany has done.

A powerful lobby

That seven out of 10 presidential candidates answered the farmers union's invitation to their annual congress testifies to the power of France’s rural lobby. According to Joel Gombin, who specializes in the rural vote at the University of Picardie Jules Verne, the FNSEA union is the country's third-biggest professional organization. 

"Agriculture is France, it is the country's identity," says Nicolas Jean Brehon, an economist at the Institute for Rural Law and Agricultural Economic Studies in Levallois, a Paris suburb. "Where else in the world do you have candidates spending five to eight hours at a farming show?"

Farmers’ symbolic power far outweighs their demographic weight. There are only 1 million farmers among the population of 65 million, and they make up only 3 percent of the workforce. But their electoral power is three times as high, social scientists estimate, because they tend to vote as a bloc with their family, their relatives, and people living on the farm. They also have higher voter turnout rates than the country as a whole, says Mr. Gombin. Their political power is strongest at the regional and local levels, among France’s 36,000 municipalities.

A more urban France

Agriculture is omnipresent, from the quasi-industrial cornfields of the Loire Valley to the one-man goat farms in the Pyrenees, says Mr. Brehon. It remains a full-time job for most farmers. 

But its importance is declining. Residents in the fast-growing banlieues (suburbs), often immigrants, have no attachment to rural France, and young people are leaving their family farms for jobs in cities. "Fifteen years ago, the whole family worked on the farm," says Gangneron. "Today, farmers are often alone." 

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