PARIS – Over the past week, French farmers have used tractors to block the border with Germany and chucked foreign vegetables off trucks in protest of cheap imports. French leaders did not call in the police — they gave the farmers their support.
France's permissive attitude toward protest has cultural roots that run even deeper when it comes to the people who work the land.
The actions of French farmers in this summer of discontent has included hijacking toll booths, setting up "customs" roadblocks to search trucks carrying German meat and throwing produce from abroad off trailers heading to French supermarkets.
They are protesting increasingly slim margins they blame on cheap imports and high social charges, which they say make them unable to compete against Germany, much less Eastern Europe. The farmers at the center of the roadblocks went beyond what even their union chief wanted, when he asked them to "respect goods and people" in their protest.
Within hours, French President Francois Hollande — normally a bedrock supporter of the European Union's open borders — had nothing but assurance for the farmers: "We will continue to pressure," he said, "so that the farmers are certain, protests or not, that we are at their side."
On Tuesday, the union chief, Xavier Beulin, noted the tacit support of the French public for his protesters.
"To my fellow citizens, I express our gratitude for their comprehension and their sympathy," he wrote in a letter. "They can feel that this will be an important part of our country's future."
On Tuesday, tractors again blocked highways in eastern France: "We will stop all the refrigerated trucks to screen for imported meat," Jean-Marc Breme, a local union leader, told Europe 1 radio.
General sympathy for farmers runs deep in France. Even those exasperated by the protest were reluctant to come out harshly against it. Instead, top government ministers met with agriculture representatives and bankers to continue negotiations on a plan to help the farmers that would not run afoul of European Union rules. The agriculture minister, Stephane Le Foll, noted that closing the borders wasn't an option but didn't announce any specific countermeasures.
Even Germans, whose products were this week's primary targets, seemed to accept the protest as something unique to their neighbors. German Agriculture Ministry spokesman Jens Urban described the movement as "a protest by French farmers that it is not for us, as the German government, to evaluate."
The farmers' protest is a passionate expression of French mistrust of free trade, as well as the country's freewheeling tradition of protest, said Laurent Warlouzet, a historian of European industrial policy. "There is no arbiter between the citizen and the state," he said, "and so citizens revolt violently when there is a problem."
Protesters stop short of real violence, which would draw immediate police intervention. But so long as it's just a show — like detaining a factory manager for hours, or even a few days, to make a point, or burning tires on the Channel Tunnel rail tracks in Calais to protest job cuts — authorities tend not to interfere. And farmers get even more leeway for histrionics than most, as the history of the country's most famous farmer — Jose Bove — can attest.
Bove, a sheep farmer and producer of Roquefort cheese, led a group of activists as they dismantled a McDonald's under construction in the south of France in 1999 in a protest against the U.S. and the World Trade Organization. Bove was ultimately jailed and convicted, but the former spokesman of the Farmers Confederation now serves as a deputy in the European Parliament.
"I would do the same if I were in their (the current farmer protesters') place," Bove told Sud Radio.
A current Farmers Confederation spokesman, Laurent Pinatel, was more circumspect about the protests led by the rival union. He instead called for putting the brakes on a free-trade accord between the U.S. and Europe.
"We're having a hard time with the discourse that we're hearing now, whether it's from politicians or activists," said Pinatel. "We don't see ourselves represented very well."
Although even disruptive protests tent to get broad support, those led by the farmer have a special place in French culture, according to Warlouzet.
"He is the guardian of all that is France, the gastronomy, the countryside," he said. "Even if they count for less than 3 percent of the population, there is a symbolic importance."
Associated Press writers David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.