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Last Updated: Monday, 23 May, 2005, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
France's farmers set for protest vote
By Henri Astier
BBC News, Valcivieres, France

Alain Quaglino
Alain Quaglino believes his way of life is under threat
As a working-class boy, Alain Quaglino said "no" to the teachers who wanted him to train as an electrician - his dream was to become a shepherd.

Four decades on, he and his family live on a small farm with 60 goats in Valcivieres, a mountain village in the French region of Auvergne.

And these days, Mr Quaglino is showing his independence again by saying "no" - this time to the proposed European constitution being put to a referendum.

"The constitution contributes to destroying the social fabric of regions like this," he says, swallowing a piece of the rich, mellow cheese he produces.

As he sees it, the document urges ever-increasing productivity in farming and will lead to the eventual death of small-scale units like his.

"They want more growth, and this will kill a way of life."

Militant stronghold

Alain Quaglino is not alone in his fierce rejection of the constitutional treaty.

Map of France

Polls suggest that about two-thirds of France's 650,000 farmers intend to vote No on Sunday.

The naysayers are particularly strong in Auvergne, an area known for being a stronghold of the radical left and a hotbed of peasant militancy.

Alain Quaglino and his wife Marie settled in the Forez mountains, a stunningly beautiful but poor area, more than an hour's drive south-east of the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand, in 1986.

Like them, many farmers here eke out a living on marginal land and belong to the Confederation paysanne, a group once led by fellow goat farmer - and latterly anti-capitalist hero - Jose Bove.

On the face of it, the group's opposition to the constitution may seem surprising, since French farmers are by far the main beneficiaries of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Brussels has been reforming the CAP saying self-sufficiency in food was not a priority
Anne-Marie Chanal, French farmer
But as Mr Quaglino points out, most of the CAP's 50bn-euro (34bn) budget goes to big farmers - who often derive more than half of their income from the EU.

"The subsidies are unequally shared out," he says.

Even under the CAP reforms undertaken over the past decade, designed to remove the link between production and subsidies, most of the aid still goes to intensive cereal and dairy producers.

"They (the EU) must focus aid on marginal zones likes ours," he adds.

"But the constitution says nothing about this."

Uncertainty

At the heart of the debate is the question of what farming is for. For the mass producers, it is about feeding as many people as possible.

But for many farmers in Auvergne, the priority should be maintaining a lifestyle.

"The constitution states that agriculture is for export, not to preserve jobs," complains Patrice Goutagny, who runs a bio-farm in Montaigut-le-Blanc, south of Clermont-Ferrand.

Cheese
The debate goes to the heart of why people farm
However, not all farmers in Auvergne share this view. Some, like Jean Castagnini - who owns 350 goats and sheep - insist that the CAP is a separate issue from the constitution. He says he will vote Yes.

"It is up to politicians, not the treaty, to change the Common Agricultural Policy," he says.

Furthermore, Mr Castagnini adds, the far-right National Front rejects the constitution, a fact he regards as another reason for voting Yes.

Other local farmers, like Anne-Marie Chanal, are undecided because they are not sure what exactly the constitution says about agriculture.

HAVE YOUR SAY
We should look beyond the general unhappiness with the present government
Joe Ryan, Chartres, France

"On the one hand it states that EU farmers are supposed to feed Europeans - but then Brussels has been reforming the CAP saying self-sufficiency in food was not a priority," says Ms Chanal, who makes honey and jam on her family farm near Issoire.

"I don't get it."

She blames the French authorities for not explaining clearly where European farming policy is headed.

"Farming requires heavy investment," she adds.

"And if support for farmers is being phased out we need to know right now so we can plan for the future."

Such uncertainty will weigh heavily on the minds of French farmers as they go to the polls, and as a result rural areas are likely to register a protest vote on 29 May.


More stories by Henri Astier on French opinion ahead of the referendum:




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