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.
"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
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."
Until Sarkozy's election, all modern presidents, from Georges Pompidou to Charles de Gaulle, from François Mitterrand to Jacques Chirac, had boasted of their rural ties. But Sarkozy often touted his urban roots. He captured half the votes of the farming community in the 2007 election, but likely because of their historical identification with the conservative party.
Farmers soon grew dissatisfied with Sarkozy, finding him aloof and closer to the world of finance than dairy farms, says Pierre Boiteau, managing editor of Terre-net Media, which publishes farmers' voting intentions.
The disappointment was all the greater because his predecessor, former president Jacques Chirac, had relentlessly championed farmers' interests since his time as agriculture minister in the 1970s. "With Chirac, farmers lost the best farm lobbyist France ever had," Brehon says. "They knew Chirac would always defend them at all costs."
Polls show Sarkozy leading the the farmer vote in the current election with 41 percent of the vote, but Mr. Boiteau says centrist candidate Bayrou, the son of a farmer, could pose a challenge to Sarkozy in rural France, although he is not polling well overall. Far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen has also eroded some of Sarkozy's lead. Her polling among farmers (15 percent) is almost twice as high as that of her father Jean Marie Le Pen, who previously led the National Front party.
French farming within Europe
The younger Le Pen has capitalized on farmers' frustration with the bureaucracy of European agriculture subsidies, but her calls for removing France from Europe's agricultural subsidy system earned her boos at the FNSEA rally. In contrast, Sarkozy has pledged to work hard to retain the subsidies, known collectively as the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).
Europe has become dependent on CAP, which began in the 1960s as an effort to reboot agricultural production after World War II and was a motor for European integration. The proportion of the EU budget dedicated to the policy has steadily declined since the 1970s, when it made up 87 percent of the EU budget, but it still accounts for nearly half the budget today while only 4 percent of Europeans work in agriculture.
Skepticism about its usefulness is growing, although according to a study from the Robert Schuman Foundation, a think tank in Paris, Europe would lose 30 percent of its farms without CAP. It has become one of the most controversial policies in Europe.
"Farmers are the only ones whose income are subsidized by the community budget. Why? Are they the only ones helping to build Europe?" asked the Schuman Foundation report, which Brehon authored. Britain argues CAP is just too expensive. Denmark wants more money spent on innovation, climate change, and renewable energy. Poland wants more funding for new Eastern Europe.
The French, who, at 10 billion euros a year, are the biggest CAP beneficiaries, are also the policy's staunchest defenders (Germany is the biggest contributor).
Chirac steadfastly resisted reforms to the policy, and after years of keeping the farming community at a distance, Sarkozy has vowed to do the same as CAP is renegotiated. "Without Europe would wouldn’t have CAP," Sarkozy told farmers in Montpellier last month. "And without CAP, we wouldn’t have French farming anymore."
"Sarkozy woke up. He said he was ready to stand up to Europe to stand up for the right of farmers," Brehon says. "A president cannot neglect the world of farmers. It is too powerful."