THE storming of Paris by farmers enraged by their government's bending to American demands that certain French agricultural subsidies be eliminated is not so much about "a few million tons of oilseed" as it is about preserving a culture and a way of life.
In the United States, where traces of the "rural ideal" can still be found in remaindered coffee-table art books collecting the works of Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, and Andrew Wyeth, there are 30 percent fewer farmers, as an average of the total population, than in France. While roughly 25 percent of all Americans and Frenchmen live in rural areas, almost all the rural French are in agricultural work as compared with only 2 percent of rural Americans.
A semirural lifestyle is within commuting distance of most middle-class Americans fleeing ravaged cities, and their nostalgia for the countryside provides a marketing bonanza to 19 country lifestyle magazines circulated to more than 8 million Americans and read by three times as many. This yearning for the land is the cultural cue for real estate developers to pressure county planning boards to rezone rural acreage for large-lot developments that gobble up farmland and strain limited ground water resourc es.
Inefficient pocket development inevitably drives up taxes as communities are logistically stymied by the far-flung need for services such as schools, sewers, police, fire, ambulance, and garbage. Where resistance to rezoning rural land is high, rural "blockbusting" in the form of seemingly innocuous golf courses creates a landscaped environment more compatible with luxury housing than contour farming.
The anti-agrarian agenda in the US over the past decade was set in corporate and bank board rooms, where credit-squeezed farmers were left to the mercies of agribusiness and real estate speculators. Between 1980 and 1990, more than 51 million acres of US farmland were taken out of production, adding up to a loss of 294,000 farms, 12 percent of the total. The average size of the remaining farms increased from 426 acres to 461.
By contrast, the average size of a French farm is 72 acres, less than one-sixth the size of an American farmhold. While the size of French farms has more than doubled since 1970, French farmers still cluster in charmingly preserved villages in order to conserve valuable agricultural land. There are few suburban zones surrounding French towns, which puts an urban Frenchman much closer to his rural roots than the American suburbanite who must look wistfully each month at a Vermont wall calendar.
American trade policy is a direct assault on France's rural way of life, which is willingly supported by French taxpayers with a $25 billion annual subsidy to French farmers.
WHILE the visible American farm subsidy of about $11 billion is comparatively small, its indirect subsidy, at least an additional $25 billion, is hidden in various programs that make food available to needy segments of society. The Franco-American subsidy issue now whirling around oilseed and soybean production is really a political issue involving the US government's need to show better public numbers on the trade deficit. American posturing also serves the big agribusiness interests which, rather than cut back or shift production, seek higher prices for exports in order to maintain corporate profits.
US policies would remold French agriculture and rural life in the American image. This means forcing them to consolidate small farms into big ones and reducing the number of farm laborers. With fewer hands needed to work more land, villages and towns would begin to empty as people moved closer to industrial centers in search of work. Vacant houses and untilled farmland would become targets of real estate speculation and development. Already in Provence one can see vineyards abandoned to weeds as the Euro pean Community trade agreements undercut French vintners by opening France to cheap Italian and Spanish red wines.
The suburbanization of France is the price that the French are being asked to pay so that a rather small segment of American agriculture can wedge its way into world markets.
The violent protests of French farmers can be dismissed as economically self-serving. But the apparent support of the urban French for their rural brethren indicates the tightness of the cultural weave that binds together French life, while American's symbolic connection to Americana is preserved by nostalgic mythologists on the pages of Yankee Magazine and on Hallmark holiday cards.
When was the last time you saw a team of Clydesdales on a snow-covered street, trotting to the jangle of Christmas bells, gliding to a stop in front of a clapboard colonial oozing the warmth of golden shafts of light through the windows?
If your answer is "on a TV commercial," then you can understand why most Americans can't relate to the plight of US soybean "farmers" who have shed their jeans, donned three-piece suits, and clustered in office buildings in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines.
And what the heck is a soybean anyway, other than an alternative cheap food ingredient to equally wholesome but more flavorful oils and proteins? Is it for this that we want to bulldoze French villages?