France’s Peasant Revolt

In what sense do French farming activist José Bové’s concerns root in medieval peasant revolts?

May 5, 2002

In what sense do French farming activist José Bové's concerns root in medieval peasant revolts?

José Bové catapulted to fame when he led members of the Confédération Paysanne — a French farmer organization he founded in 1987 — on a rampage against a local McDonald’s restaurant in the town of Millau in 1999. Mr. Bové has also destroyed genetically modified crops — and spent some time in jail for all his troubles.

Mr. Bové is no ordinary peasant rabble-rouser, though. His parents are biologists — and he spent his early childhood in Berkeley, California. His own protest career goes back four decades to his days as a student at the University of Bordeaux.

Since then, he has become an expert at attracting the attention of the global media — and he has also written a best-selling book, Le Monde N’est Pas Une Merchandise (“The World Is Not For Sale”).

Today, the main target of Mr. Bové and his fellow protesters is globalization. French farmers see their traditional way of life threatened by forces from abroad.

Yet, contrary to what both many of his detractors and admirers both claim, Mr. Bove’s tactics are by no means new. In a 14th century peasant uprising known as “Jacquerie,” French farmers looted estates and torched castles and churches.

The Jacquerie took its name from Jacques Bonhomme, a derogatory nickname used by the French aristocracy at the time for French peasants. The uprising was a local affair but it had its roots in grievances exacerbated by the Hundred Years War.

That war was triggered by conflicting claims to the French throne between Edward III of England and Philip of Valois, the nephew of France’s king Philip IV. Even after a preliminary treaty in 1360, French farmers continued to suffer at the hand of jobless English mercenaries — who fed themselves by plundering the French countryside. These mercenaries were so keen on stealing and slaughtering cattle that the French nicknamed them “beefeaters.”

Add the demand for more taxes from the peasantry by the French aristocracy, as well as the ravages of the plague — which entered France at the time of the English invasion — and you have the perfect recipe for a peasant revolt.

Once more, disease and beef are common themes in latest French revolt. Mr. Bové and his followers point to the Mad Cow disease and the foot-and-mouth epidemic as symptoms of globalization’s dire effect on farming. (Incidentally, both evils once again originated in Great Britain.)

Moreover, anti-globalization protesters are upset by the industrial production methods exemplified by McDonald’s hamburgers. Like their medieval predecessors, today’s French farmers and activists are concerned about livestock issues.

In short, “humane farming” is their catch phrase. They argue that humane farmers want to stop the misuse of antibiotics and chemicals on factory farms — and protect the environment from the impacts of industrialized farming.

So, what was the outcome for Monsieur Bové’s historical predecessors? The French nobility promptly crushed the Jacquerie revolt — and the peasants who participated in it were dealt with harshly.

Mr. Bové’s campaign may have a more positive outcome. Although the McDonald’s restaurant that he dismantled three years ago is once again open for business, he certainly achieved his main goal — attracting attention.

Those who take the trouble reading his book will also find that there is more to José Bové than merely lashing out against fast food in order to safe his beloved Roquefort cheese.