GERS, in southwestern France, is a land of rolling farms and villages whose timbered walls and terra-cotta roofs date back to the 13th century. But signs of protest pockmark the scenery: Farmer effigies swing from tree limbs; hand-painted billboards blare out slogans - "Down with PAC '92" "Fallow = Death."
The wave of protests that began in Gers in December has spread across the country:
* On Saturday, French farmers ransacked government offices in Brittany and blocked roads across the country.
* A day earlier, farmers parked about 300 tractors across the highway to Euro Disneyland.
* On June 23, a squad of riot police, drawn up in a line behind their plexiglass shields, hurled tear-gas grenades at tractors charging seven or eight abreast into positions across a major roadway leading to Paris.
These demonstrations and others around the country mark the bitterness of French farmers' opposition to the new Common Agricultural Policy (PAC). The plan, they feel, threatens their very way of life.
The accord, signed in Brussels last month, abolishes the European system of agricultural price-supports. Radically falling prices are to be offset by direct assistance to farmers - if they agree to take a part of their lands out of production.
"Everybody agreed that there had to be a reform," says Elizabeth Vinot, an official at the French Agriculture Ministry. "The Common Agricultural Policy as it was designed 30 years ago allowed Europe to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs. But once that self-sufficiency was achieved, Europe found itself confronted with surpluses that weighed very heavily on the budgets of the 12 countries."
Farm activists concede the need for change but object to the terms of this reform.
"It is not possible to enter so brutally into a system of falling prices and limited production, when the problems of land management, or of reducing the cost of European and French agriculture, are not dealt with in any way by any directive," says Henri-Bernard Cartier, president for Gers of the Departmental Federation of Agricultural Workers' Unions.
Gers has lost some 2,000 farmers over the past eight years. Of the remaining 9,000, another 2,000 are at this point unable to make payment on their debts.
This region of mostly small farms has already faced a difficult adjustment, as farmers have had to diversify to mitigate the effects of a three-year-old drought. Because almost half of its acreage is planted in grain, (wheat, sunflowers, colza, and corn) Gers is particularly affected by the new policy. Grain prices will drop 29 percent in the next three years, as opposed to 15 percent for meat, and 3 percent for butter.
"We need a reform," says Mr. Cartier. "That's agreed. But not one that substitutes a world-price system for the system we know now.
"We would absolutely accept a reform that maintained prices high enough for a farmer to have the bulk of his income coming from his work - so that when the work is good the return is good, and direct aid only accounts for a minor portion of his income," he adds.
To the farmers, this is the crucial issue. The idea of willfully ceasing to produce, the notion of receiving direct government assistance for not doing what they consider to be their work, is at the basis of their distress.
Philippe Oulet and his wife and daughter live in a stone farmhouse on the flank of a hill near the village of Escorneboeuf. As they gather with friends around the empty fireplace in their living room, the malaise is palpable.
"Land gone fallow?" cries Mr. Oulet, slumping back in his chair, "But what a pity! What a waste."
He and the others cite various figures as they talk: the cost of maintaining a hectare of land (about 5,000 francs [$970], they say) as opposed to the subsidy offered (3,500-4,000 francs). The fact that the price of sunflower seeds has gone from 4 francs a kilo to 2.40 francs a kilo in four years.
"What other profession would accept losing 40 percent of its salary?" they ask. Or that wheat worth 1 franc produces 12 francs of bread. "Who is being subsidized - us or the bakers?"
But as the evening passes, these details begin to seem like grace notes to a theme of a deeper despair.
"We are farmers because we conserved the patrimony that our elders passed down to us," says Oulet, who is the ninth generation in his family to be born in Escorneboeuf.
"If we can't transmit that patrimony in turn, then why keep working?"
It is as though the farmers see an impending sterility bearing down upon them.
"There's no one at church any more," says Oulet, "and the schools will close, since we're past the age of reproducing here...."
Laughter and protests interrupt him, but his words echo those of other farmers, who cite the high number of bachelors in the profession: twice as many as in the population at large.
Later, the conversation turns to the drought that has been plaguing Gers, then to the Occitan language, which predated French in the southwest, and is now dying out. Everything seems to tell these farmers that they are the last of something, the dead branch at the end of an ancient tree.
And now, as they see it, even their own government is joining in, imposing infertility by legislative decree.
"It is understandable that there should be some worries," says Ms. Vinot, repeating the words of Agriculture Minister Louis Mermaz.
"It may be difficult for [farmers] to assimilate the content of the reform, and then it's for us to explain what we're about."
But French farmers want modifications, not explanations. And though the Common Agricultural Policy is a finished document, negotiated and signed at the European level, they intend to continue their protests.
"After all," says Jean-Louis Imbert, aboard a tractor in front of the palace at Versailles, "We are still in France. We have a government; we have a National Assembly. If the mobilization is strong enough, they'll have to do something."