French still attuned to the rooster's call

Porcine grandeur and memories of a peasant past bring hundreds of thousands to France's equivalent of a state fair, even as farms fail.

There is something about the sight of a well-built cow that reaches deep into the French soul.

How else to explain the pressing crowds of visitors to the annual International Agricultural Show, now under way here, who gawp in admiration at ribbon-bedecked champion bullocks?

An astonishing 600,000 people are expected to come to the show this week from all four corners of the realm, revealing a fascination for the countryside that lurks in the shadows of even the most sophisticated Parisian psyche.

In a country where the rural exodus really began only after World War II, most French adults have a peasant farmer somewhere in their recent family history.

"My parents were farmers, and I was born in the countryside with the cows. It gives me pleasure to look at them here," says Marcel Dubois, a middle-aged Parisian, as he pushes his way past straw-filled cattle pens.

That is a feeling that President Jacques Chirac - a consummate politician who likes to play the country boy, despite his Parisian origins - taps into every year as he opens the show.

This year, organizers were disappointed that Mr. Chirac's duties as world leader of opposition to war in Iraq meant that he spent only three hours patting livestock, tasting regional specialties, and chatting up farmers, instead of the usual five hours he devotes to such pleasures.

He won applause for again defending Europe's agricultural-subsidy program, which farmers love despite clear evidence of its wastefulness and inefficiency. But even fat subsidies cannot save some 25,000 French farms a year from going under, as France's peasant underpinnings come adrift.

Still, the country's rural reputation is not a myth: France is the second-largest food exporter in the world. And it would be hard to deny the reality of Pompon, a 2,550-pound woolly black and brown Aubrac bull who looked like a marginally tamed bison as he won the "best in class" medal.

You couldn't help believing in Piquin, either, the biggest pig I have ever seen - a good 8 feet long from snout to tail with a girth to match - whose résumé (posted by Piquin's pen) boasts 119 piglets.

If you had the patience to force your way through the crush, you could inspect 734 cows and bulls, 575 sheep, 60 pigs, 119 horses, ponies, and donkeys, 477 dogs, 450 rabbits, 300 pigeons, and 400 fowl at the show this week. I skipped the dogs and rabbits, and found it hard to tell the differences among most of the pigeons. But hawk-eyed poultry judges spotted faults that most visitors probably missed.

"Neck not long enough," read the judging notes on one unfortunate goose. Another apparently suffered from a lack of "toilettage," or grooming, though it was unclear whether this was the goose's fault or its owner's. An otherwise splendid jet-black cock was disqualified because of "unequal spikes on his cockscomb."

Many foreign producers set up stands at the show - the largest of its kind in Europe - but no Americans came. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that American beef is banned from Europe because of hormones, and that Washington and the European Union are battling over whether genetically modified foods should be labeled as such. One former outcast from the French food scene made a triumphant comeback at the show, however. The British Meat stand was swamped whenever the chef began carving up free chunks of sirloin steak.

After being banned in France for six years because of "mad cow" fears, British beef still cannot be found in French butchers' shops, even though it is legal. But at the agricultural show stand "the response has been phenomenal," says chef Simon Smith. "When the beef comes out, we are deluged."

But at a French show, French tastes prevail, he adds, looking with slight distaste at the bloodily red meat he is carving. "Of course, you have to serve it the way they like it."

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