On 12 August 1999, a McDonalds in Millau, south-west France was dismantled by protesters just days before it was due to open. On a sunny afternoon a crowd of farmers, activists, union members, men, women and children loaded the rubble onto trucks and tractors, drove it through town and dumped it outside the town hall.
The objective was to have a non-violent but symbolically forceful action, in broad daylight and with the largest participation possible.
- José Bové
The attack on this McDonalds's was a dramatic, non-violent, media-catching and hugely successful publicity stunt. It was Bové, a farmer, union activist and veteran campaigner who was the figurehead and who co-ordinated this 'stunt'. He's a household name in France, described by the French Press Agency as 'an instantly recognisable figure, with his extravagant moustache and pipe-smoking habit, popping up wherever there is an ecological axe to be ground.'
The trial in Millau also turned into a media circus with his partners in crime turning up on the back of a tractor and at the head of a considerable crowd of supporters, demonstrators and members of the public who simply turned up to the well-organised event. Traditional French fare was available at stands and all kinds of lobby groups organised events to make it a sort of family day out for sympathisers at all levels.
Bové's legal team tried to justify the action by putting globalisation on trial, inviting speakers such as the economist Susan George to testify. But he was convicted of criminal damage and served three months in prison.
Why Destroy a McDonalds?
In the background there has long been unease at American corporate power and influence, as represented by McDonalds. Bové has concerns about how the food sold in McDonalds is farmed, sourced, and processed. He opposes the bland homogenisation of culinary culture as represented by a soggy Big Mac. There were community concerns about litter, and the impact of a multinational on local businesses.
It was hormone-treated beef that finally sparked the action. Such beef, where the cattle are fed hormones to artificially speed up their growth had been blocked from entering European markets by the EU on health grounds. In tit-for-tat trade retaliation, the US, backed by the WTO, imposed high tariffs on some 'luxury' European food products, including Roquefort cheese.
This tariff was a severe economic blow to the farmers of South West France where Roquefort is made. The construction of a McDonalds nearby, to sell this hormone-treated meat to them in a sesame seed bun with 'French' fries seemed to add insult to injury.
'The World is Not For Sale'
Bové is no ordinary farmer. The Wall Street Journal describes him as 'The Bakunin-quoting1 former hippie who only became a farmer in 1975 as a political act'. José Bové and Francois Dufour's book 'The World Is Not For Sale'2 outlines an alternative vision of sustainable farming respectful of the long-term and global context.
He is conscious of the way food and farming link man to the land, and believes that eating should bring pleasure. Campaigning for improved farming methods is part of a wider battle against malbouffe which is his term for bad food.
Apart from the odd Sunday, or on special occasions the meal is no longer the focus of the day, a time for conviviality and sharing. This change is due to the pressures of contemporary culture at work and during leisure time.
Food is a critical issue to Bové, both its production and consumption. He advocates eating local produce, grown organically and farmed collectively. This food is tastier, he says, provides local employment and trade, and is environmentally sustainable. He contrasts this approach with the standards of multi-national agribusiness and fast food outlets, who he portrays as soulless and purely profit-motivated.
Agribusiness uses genetic modification, hormones, fertilisers and pesticides to force ever higher yields from the land in vast monoculture farms. Such farms possibly cause health and environmental problems, and certainly result in an excess of a bland crop. This excess is then dumped onto the foreign markets, undercutting the price of local produce and bankrupting the farmer.
Genetic modification is not the answer to the problem of hunger in the world... no one really believes that the problems of hunger and underdevelopment can be solved by technological means; economic, social and political conditions have to be taken into account.
Since his release from jail Bové has campaigned internationally against genetic modification of crops. He was involved in crop destroying action in Brazil, and is currently sentenced to six months prison in France for destroying GM rice crops. At the time of writing, his appeal is pending3.
1 Mikhail Bakunin 1814-1876. Mikhail Bakunin was one of the intellectual founding fathers of Anarchism.
2 More on his book here.
3 Jose Bove - loses appeal against jail sentence for destroying GM crops.