Asterix vs. Ronald MacDonald

José Bové Thrashes American food

How one middle-aged hippy beat the French army, trained in a Libyan terrorist camp, trashed a McDonalds – and became a national hero.

In a country where posturing and the dramatic gesture are highly rated, the saintly innocence on 51-year-old José Bové’s face as a police helicopter landed on his lawn and then whisked him off to jail made sensational headlines across France.

“I am a sacrifice to the new totalitarianism!”, he cried to the media crews swarming his farm in Larzac. “There have been three totalitarian forces in our lifetime: the totalitarianism of Fascism, of Communism and now of American capitalism.” 

The human sacrifice went off to serve three months in a minimum-security prison where he began an immediate hunger strike. This lasted a couple of weeks (he allowed himself freshly squeezed orange juice) and then he was released, his term reduced by a presidential pardon.

"A country that allows this is not worthy of being the nation of human rights”, he proclaimed to a crowd that included his wife, his girlfriend, celebrities, supporters and members of his union, la Confédération Paysanne (la Conf, the Peasant Confederation) greeting his triumphant release. Bové then flew to Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah to express his solidarity with the Palestinian people.

As far as the French public is concerned, Bové ascended to superstar status on 12 August 1999, when he turned up in his tractor at the head of a rag-tag procession of local protestors to destroy a half-built McDonald’s restaurant in the town of Millau in the Tarn River Canyon.

In full view of the invited – naturally – media, Bové crashed his tractor through the fence surrounding the restaurant, broke through the door and then, assisted by his mates, stripped the place clean of roof tiles, panelling and pipes with crowbars and chainsaws. As four policemen watched disinterestedly from a safe distance, they painted their slogan on the roof: “Out with McDo. Protect our Roquefort”.

Roquefort, that was apparently Bové’s beef. The previous year, the French had banned the import of American beef into their country, insisting that it be labelled “hormone treated”. In fact, the Ministère de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche (the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery) was not concerned at the least by additives but was more interested in creating a closed home market for its own powerful beef farmers. A health scare was a useful opportunity to sidestep European Union rules on free trade (the same trick had been used successfully to close off France to British beef after the “Mad Cow” crisis of the 1990s). The United States responded by slapping on a 100% import tax on a number of French agricultural products, including Roquefort cheese.

Enter José Bové. Twenty years before, as a student dropout, he had joined a rolling caravan of protestors occupying some public land as a protest against the French army that had planned to set up a base there. Bové and his companions illegally built a sheep barn there and, after the French army had retreated (as is its wont), decided to keep the land. To do that, they found they actually had to run the place as a farm. They set up a “peasant action committee on Maoist principles”, brought in five hundred sheep and, thanks to subsidies from the French government and the European Union, began producing a rudimentary version of Roquefort, called la Tomme, selling it to local markets. 

While the American import tax on the cheese had precisely zero effect on Bové’s sales, it was a good enough excuse to protest about what he really disliked, the United States and, specifically, the most convenient symbol of its success, Ronald McDonald. "We are peasants and citizens, not shareholders nor servile slaves at the service of American crap food (malbouffe)”, he has proclaimed.

The story of the raid was splashed across French newspapers. The Paris media portrayed Bové as “the Asterix of the Larzac plateau”, not only because of the Village People-style handlebar moustache he shares with the cartoon character but because of his cheery resistance to a foreign threat to France’s treasured culture. Libération newspaper proudly ran the headline “Bové: France’s No.1 Oppositionist”. 

It took four days before the French police realised that events were getting out of hand. They arrested four of the raiders on Bové’s farm though the leader himself had beaten a convenient retreat to Bordeaux. Only when he realised he was big news did he join his colleagues in the cells, driving his tractor to the police station to turn himself in. Over the next two weeks, eighteen members of the French parliament, from greens and communists to the extreme right, demanded Bové’s release – including the then Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. (Naturally, the French had already tried to release the group but Bové refused to pay his bail. “You just don't ask union members to post bail to get out of jail,” he sniffed, so they were forced to keep him).

The trial was all he could have hoped for. Twenty thousand tie-dyed, spliff-puffing and undeodorised supporters packed the narrow streets of Millau to watch Bové turn up at the courthouse aboard a tractor-drawn trailer decorated like a tumbril. "Non à la McDomination," chanted one cluster of gonzos. "WTO [World Trade Organisation] equals death”, said another. The press polls showed 45% of the French population agreed with Bové smashing up the restaurant. He received two thousand fan letters a day. President Chirac, always eager to stress his multipolar credentials, issued a statement: "I am in complete solidarity with France's farm-workers, and I detest McDonald's food.”

Inside the court, things seemed even better. Judge François Mallet, a one-time Communist and popular local figure, was more than willing to convert the trial of Bové into a prosecution of la mondialisation (globalisation). Bové’s demand that fourteen French and foreign celebrities of the new "Citizens' International" be allowed to appear as witnesses was allowed and they were being questioned benignly about politics and US policy by a celebrated Paris human rights lawyer. 

Bové ran the court like a ringmaster, insisting that his McDonald's attack, which inflicted €150,000 of damage, was really caused by the Americans.

"It was a provocation the moment that the Americans decided to tax Roquefort and there was no recourse for us through the WTO. It's an organisation above the law that no one can challenge”, he said. McDonald’s, he claimed, “was a legitimate symbol of bad American eating habits”.

True, there were uncomfortable moments when the judge questioned Bové’s description of his rampage as a “peaceful, non-violent dismantling” by asking how an attack using tractors, crowbars and chainsaws could be “non-violent”. On the whole, it was going wonderfully until the jury returned its verdict of “Guilty” and the judge gave Bové three months in jail.

No one was more surprised than Bové who immediately launched a string of appeals, demanded a pardon from President Chirac and proclaimed “This is the first time a union leader has been sentenced to such a long prison term in France for a legitimate action of civil disobedience.” He added: "Last summer, I drove to prison in my tractor. This time, if the police want to throw me in the Bastille, they have to come and get me."

And so they did, avoiding all the high jinks with the tractor by landing on his lawn one fine dawn in June 2000 and taking him off to jail by helicopter.

Bové claims to be a victim of “the conspirators of globalisation”. Ironically, he may be right but if there was a conspiracy, it was hatched in France and not the US. Bové’s jail sentence was unusual. Earlier that year, militant farming campaigners ransacked the offices of the former environment minister Dominique Voynet only to have the case against them dropped, while those who destroyed hundreds of thousands of euros' worth of goods at an agribusiness factory in Mayenne were not even pursued.

Bové’s mistake was to carry out his action in the name of the upstart union he himself had started, la Confédération Paysanne. Small, militant and pretty much a fan club to himself, it competes directly with the larger Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA, National Federation of Agricultural Workers).

The FNSEA does what it likes, from burning imports of British lamb in Calais or hijacking lorries carrying Spanish wine into France and emptying their cargo into the gutters. It gets way with this because the local chambres départmentales d’agriculture (departmental farming committees) are swamped with its members who ruthlessly exercise the stranglehold this gives them on the policies (and subsidies) of the French Ministry of Agriculture. Highly influential, the FNSEA intermeshes with police, state and regulatory authorities at all levels.

"It is never a good thing to see a trade unionist in jail”, a FNSEA vice-president Dominique Barrau observed of Bové’s imprisonment, “but now he will have time to contemplate coordinating his actions with my union.”

Bové remains unrepentant. He continues his campaign, with much national support, against “American malbouffe”. He still loathes McDonalds, a loathing underlined by the recent release of his police interviews regarding that incident in Millau. "That McDonald's will be destroyed as many times as necessary”, runs one statement, “ even if it takes a bomb.” 

There are plenty of others in France who share the same hatred of McDonald’s and the globalisation it supposedly symbolises. On 19 April 2000 a bomb exploded at a McDonald's in Dinan, France. One employee was killed by the blast. The culprit was never traced.


“I am not a commodity. I am a real person.” The Life of José Bové. b. 11 June 1953, son of two agricultural chemists from Luxembourg (his father was regional director of Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique [National Institute of Agricultural Sciences Research] and member of the French Academy of Sciences). Brought up outside France, including Berkeley, California. Expelled from Catholic school in Paris for atheism. Studied philosophy at Bordeaux University but dropped out after a month. Became a full-time protester, eventually occupying public lands in the Larzac region. Stayed, illegally building a sheep barn on a planned French military base. Became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese within a “farming commune”. His farming schedule allows plenty of time for his activism. On 1985, he trained in a Quadafi-sponsored "direct action" training camp in Libya. In 1987, formed the Confédération Paysanne, an agricultural union to oppose genetically modified foodstuffs. In 1995, he joined Greenpeace on its ship, the Rainbow Warrior, to protest about nuclear weapons testing. In 1999, he led union members to destroy a McDonald’s restaurant in a gesture against “American cultural imperialism”. Sentenced to three months in prison but actually served 44 days. In 2001, helped destroy genetically-modified crops in Brazil. In 2002, deported by Israeli police while protesting in Ramallah in the West Bank and Gaza.. Has also intervened to support the movements of the Tahitians, the Kanaks, the Sunni Iraqis and the Kurds. On 22 June, 2003 Bové began a ten-month sentence for the destruction of GM crops. President Jacques Chirac reduced the sentence to end in December.

Bové the Fraud?: “His critics describe an opportunist, a veteran activist with no real farming roots, who has "not seen his sheep for a month". They cite his Californian upbringing, and France's Elle Magazine once called Bové "the man who fooled us most, who perpetuated fraud". And before he founded the Confederation Paysanne, a leftist peasant farmers' union, they ask why an authentic French farmer would really need to spend time at a Qadafi-sponsored "direct action" training camp in Libya?” BBC April 2002

Bové the Untouchable?: "It would astonish me greatly if the judge dares to order us to be arrested after the trial. If so, the state would be making a great mistake, triggering an unprecedented situation.” José Bové the day before the police chopper whisked him off to serve his three-month sentence.


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