When the countryside comes to Paris, the presidential hopefuls go country

The annual Salon de l’Agriculture is under way, bringing France's best dairy, produce, and livestock to urban Paris. And the country's presidential hopefuls are putting in their own appearances to rally support.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
A woman sells Cantal cheese at the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris on March 1.

Farm animals get the red carpet treatment at the Salon de l’Agriculture – literally. Small dairy cattle, a breed called Bretonne Pie Noir, strut down the walkway with flair this morning.

But at this massive farm show, the cows and sheep have to share the space with France’s rising political set too – on this particular Wednesday morning with presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron.

For any serious politician, a few hours at this nine-day event is a rite of passage – not to mention the perfect photo op. And in an election year, the presence of the frontrunners, and how they are received, is taken as cues to predict the race’s final outcome.

“Macron is going to be the next president of France,” says Mehdi Idbassaid, a Parisian working at the convention, as he stands among a pack of journalists and onlookers awaiting the arrival of the young centrist candidate who has been buoyed by the woes of his competitors. “The other candidates haven’t gotten near this amount of attention.”

Or is it that they haven’t gotten near as much attention from the press? “He’s just a media darling who has nothing to say to the people,” grumbles an older gentleman as he walks past the throngs and into the cow stalls.

Each February, the heartland of France comes to Paris, gathering in a massive convention hall where hay-filled stalls display every breed of cow, sheep, and pig that France has on offer. Little children coo over baby chicks and piglets. A group of adults takes turn stroking a baby Causses du Lot lamb. There are contests: At one end of the hall, judges are measuring the quality of wool of the sheep hailing from central France; at the other three people are beating crème fraîche to see who can create the silkiest texture.

A stroll through the salon is a visit to France’s greatest strengths: food products like wedges of Cantal cheese and charcuterie hanging from stalls that are the envy of the globe; an insistence on quality over quantity; the vast and diverse countryside that makes it all possible. Like the Tour de France, which attracts many viewers who have little interest in biking but are drawn to scenes of deep, rural France, the Salon de l’Agriculture speaks to a French person’s attachment to nature and the land.

The French overwhelmingly live in cities. But in a survey by French pollster BVA in 2015, 64 percent of respondents said they aspired to live in the countryside. And if they can’t, this is the next best thing. “I come every year, I love the animals,” says one Parisian attendee. “My parents were farmers, from the east,” she says, before telling this reporter to watch out for cow manure on the floor – with a tinge of exasperation at urban cluelessness.

Politics on the farm

And yet if this is a moment of serenity and escapism for many attendees, the rocky politics of this political race shook them into the present.

French President François Hollande made his obligatory appearance at the show's opening Saturday, but most of the political buzz is about the April-May election, which Mr. Hollande stepped out of in an unprecedented move, amid the lowest popularity for a modern president.

Wednesday morning started out in a swirl of rumor. François Fillon from the center-right cancelled his scheduled morning appearance here. He has been hit by allegations that he paid his wife for “fake work,” a scandal dubbed "Penelopegate." Forgoing this trade show is equivalent to political suicide, so many wondered if he was finally stepping down. He emerged in a press conference later to say he was fighting on – and heading to the salon later.

The French agricultural sector, the largest in the European Union, is a base of the right, and Mr. Fillon's woes have left many farmers without a candidate. Their votes could go to Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, who made her rounds here Tuesday and is leading in the national race. A small survey by Le Monde in February showed 35 percent of farmers who plan to vote will cast theirs for her. That same poll showed an abstention rate of 51 percent in the sector.

"Penelopegate" has also boosted Macron, but not necessarily in this crowd. At one point Wednesday afternoon someone threw an egg right in the candidate's face.

“It can’t be an easy day for a candidate to spend at the Salon de l’Agriculture,” says Richard Coletta, explaining his presence, and his T-shirt backing "En Marche," Macron's political organization. Mr. Coletta, disillusioned with the political class, says he signed up with "En Marche" as a volunteer a month ago.

The real deal

But not all are inspired. Off to the side, standing in a stall of hay with the Pie Rouge des Plaines cattle they tend to, are Jerome Derien and Justine Pioger, who work on a farm in Brittany.

“Which one is it?” Mr. Derien asks, looking at the slow-moving crowd in front of him. When he finds out it’s Macron, he rolls his eyes. “Marine Le Pen is the only one who is proposing something different for the people,” he says, though he adds he doesn’t know who he is voting for this spring. He is simply tired of it all. “The candidates all just come here to make themselves look good,” he says.

Does it take away some of the charm? They say no – politics is just the side show. The real deal is the animals, the products, and for once the regions and the agricultural sector, being protagonists in Paris. They marvel at how many questions they field. “A lot of people have no idea what farm life really entails,” says Ms. Pioger. “It is a pleasure to answer people’s questions.”

“This offers them a window onto all of France,” says Derien.

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