French farmer ready to stage a revolution if EC cuts subsidies

For Augustin Grit, the wrangling at the recent European Community summit in Athens over such issues as dairy super-levies, monetary compensation amounts (MCAs), and product guarantee thresholds was not important just because it may determine the political future of the Common Market.

Mr. Grit's livelihood depends on how the EC eventually deals with such issues.

Without EC agricultural subsidies, the French dairy farmer from St. Andre d'Ornay in the western Vendee region says that he cannot make ends meet. And this bull of a man, stocky and silver-haired, snorts when he talks about British demands to avert Europe's bankruptcy by cutting milk supports.

''Mrs. Thatcher wants all French farmers to be standing on unemployment lines ,'' he says. ''We won't let her get her way. We'll stage a revolution before that.''

Mr. Grit is not joking. Whenever he and his 1 1/4 million fellow French farmers have been threatened before, they rioted. Angered by low dairy prices last year, they chased the then agriculture minister, Edith Cresson, through a Norman bog shouting that she didn't know how to milk a cow.

This past weekend, they staged warning demonstrations throughout the country. No subsidy cuts and no admission of Spain and Portugal was their message. The French government received it loud and clear.

''Some countries want to end the common agricultural policy,'' a top official said. ''We will not let this happen.''

To keep Mr. Grit happy, the French refused any far-reaching compromise in Athens. They pushed the British hard to accept increases in Community taxes to balance its budget. They pressured the West Germans to dismantle the MCA subsidies, which subsidize German agricultural goods but not French ones. And they fought to keep cheap Spanish vegetables and fruits out of the Community.

What Mr. Grit and the French government say they want is a return to the original compromise that resulted in the formation of the Common Market. France agreed to open its borders to German industrial products in return for support of French agriculture.

The decision changed Mr. Grit's life. ''Before the Common Market, prices would go up and down,'' he says. ''You couldn't be sure of a living. Now with the subsidies, at least you're sure of a minimum.''

The guarantees permitted Mr. Grit to modernize his farm. No longer is he the peasant producer of a little grain, a little meat, and a little milk. He has joined an agricultural cooperative and become a full-fledged dairy farmer.

All through France, the story is the same. Farmers turned to one product, especially milk. By the late 1970s, France alone had some 450,000 dairy farmers, producing so much that Europe was swimming in ''milk lakes'' and being buried under ''butter mountains.'' Most shockingly, nearly two-thirds of the Community's budget this year is going to farmers raising this food that no European wants to eat and that is too expensive to sell on the world market.

Mr. Grit admits there is a problem. ''We produce too much milk,'' he says. But he complains, ''The British just want us to suffer.''

He is referring to British proposals that the Community should continue to subsidize only Europe's most efficient dairy farmers. Despite the modernization of his farm, Mr. Grit still cannot compete with Northern Europeans' dairy factories. He has only 17 hectares of land and 35 cows: Dutch farms remain much larger and more productive. If free competition reigned, Agriculture Ministry officials here estimate that only one-fourth of the French milk producers would survive.

''What we have to do,'' Grit says, ''is spread the sacrifices evenly. The British and the Dutch should also produce less.''

That is exactly what the French government would like to see. Instead of setting individual quotas on production, it proposes setting a tax on larger producers. And to British fury, it would like to raise Community taxes in general so that farmers are not hit too hard.

''I will produce less,'' Grit says. ''But if there is a quota and I am forced to drastically cut production, I won't be able to pay back my loans.''

The standoff on farm subsidies stalled movement on the other pressing issue on the Athens agenda: Spanish and Portuguese admission. The French, this time supported by most of the North Europeans, including Britain, insist the Community's financial troubles be resolved before any new members are admitted.

This linkage enormously complicated the negotiations on agricultural subsidies. If Spanish farmers were to receive the same benefits as other farmers , the Community would quickly go bankrupt. In addition, Spanish products are much cheaper than those in the rest of Europe. ''As a milk producer, Spanish competition would not be a problem,'' Grit says. ''But for French agriculture as a whole, it would be terrible.''

The EC chiefs of state could not ignore this and look at the political advantages of enlargement: It would solidify democracy on the Iberian Peninsula - and open up huge new markets for European industry.

The leaders also could not look to the higher political advantages of a general compromise on agricultural subsidies. Without an agreement, the Common Market's budget will continue to be chronically underfinanced.

Down on the farm, Grit shares these lofty views. Reform is necessary, he agrees. Yet because any substantial reform will hurt him badly, the European Community threatens to remain in disarray.

''Of course, we want the Common Market to be strengthened,'' he says. ''Remember, it assured me a living. I just want to make sure that the rules aren't changed all of a sudden to bankrupt me.''

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