Why Courts Don't Deter France's Anti-McDonald's 'Astérix'

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Jose Bove clenches his fist upon his arrival at court in Montpellier

There was always a bit of a nod and wink in France's punishment of its most famous contemporary saboteur. After all, while sheep farmer Jose Bove's ransacking of a McDonald's outlet in the Montpellier town of Millau two years ago was simple hooliganism in the eyes of the law, it was nonetheless overwhelmingly popular in a nation that mans the barricades at the first sign of U.S. cultural encroachment. Even Prime Minister Lionel Jospin termed Bove's Quixotic crusade "just."

Bove, who on Thursday in a Montpellier court launched his appeal of a three-month prison sentence handed down last September, led the attack on the local McDonald's after the U.S. slapped a 100 percent tariff on the import of the Roquefort cheese made by the accused and his fellow fighting farmers. The U.S. tariff had been sanctioned by the World Trade Organization, as a retaliation for France's ban on hormone-treated American beef.

'American cuisine?' An oxymoron!

France has for most of this century had a love-hate relationship with U.S. popular culture. The government has, for example, fought hard to maintain trade protections on French cinema in the face of the Hollywood onslaught. To watch Levis-clad French college kids in sidewalk cafés discussing the trial of Puffy Combs or the Cruise-Kidman divorce makes it plain that this such protections are a doomed holding action. But cuisine — cuisine is different. Ask any French man or woman for their views on U.S. cuisine, and nine times out of ten you'll be told, "They have no cuisine." France, by contrast, prides itself on a strict, regionally based specialization in produce and cuisine that has evolved over hundreds of years. McDonald's, for Bove and his supporters, is a symbol of a standardized industrial approach to food cultivation and preparation, which they see as the antithesis of French culinary culture.

In standing up for Roquefort against hormone-laced beef, Bove clearly touched a national nerve. So much so that McDonald's France even launched a print advertising campaign dissing American beef imports and assuring its customers that under the French Golden Arches, they'd get French meat that came "from the farm" (rather than from some factory or laboratory). Clearly, the plucky little farmer had managed to don the mantle of Astérix, the cartoon character whose mythical David-vs.-Goliath fight against the Roman occupiers symbolizes French national pride. Some 45,000 people from all over the country crowded into Millau for a protest rally during his trial — and the local McDonald's kept its doors closed throughout the two days of hearings.

Astérix goes to Seattle. And Brazil. And...

But this particular Astérix was not content with having captured the French imagination. He quickly parlayed his McDonald's raid into a kind of radical celebrity that has made him the most recognizable global icon of the anti-globalization movement. And he didn't do it by staying on his sheep farm. Bove put in a star appearance at the trashing of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle late in 1999, and last month helped a group of peasants wreck a Monsanto research farm in Brazil, to protest that company's promotion of genetically modified crops. Bove has mounted similar actions against genetically modified products in France.

He may lay claim to Astérix's peasant style, but in truth Bove is considerably more urbane. Although born in Bordeaux in 1953, he spent most of his first seven years living in Berkeley, California, where his parents studied biochemistry at the University of California. A college activist who came of age during the aftermath of France's May 1968 student uprising, he moved to the country in 1975 with his wife to join a small farmer movement against the planned expansion of a military base. In 1987, he launched his Confederation Paysanne organization, which organizes small farmers to take actions in support of traditional French agriculture — such as the raid on McDonald's in Millau.

Bove's appeal, like his trial, will provide another occasion for grandstanding against the effects of globalization on the French palate, and on food cultivation more widely. The only difference is that this time, Bove's following is considerably larger, and more global. Because at least among globalization's legions of discontents, Jose Bove has made himself a brand every bit as recognizable as Ronald McDonald. And even if he fails to stop the McDonald's juggernaut, that may one day help him move a lot of product among America's Roquefort-munching classes.