Commentary: Vive la différence

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Back in the good old days—the 1980s—I got to spend a couple weeks touring across France on a business junket sponsored by the French government. The purpose, as our group of a dozen or so North American journalists was politely informed, was to showcase the wonders of French-made meatpacking and processing technology and equipment.

Along the way, of course, it was necessary to wine and dine our group, so that we would be properly “motivated” to file upbeat, complimentary stories about the companies and manufacturers we were visiting once we returned home.

Hey, ce n’est pas un problem. C’est tout bon.

It was all good.

Packaged along with the first-class sightseeing, however, was an in-depth tour of Brittany, France’s westernmost province known for its agricultural productivity. For a full week, we made lengthy visits to pork packing plants, toured a number of hog farms and even made a ceremonial stop at a shrine alongside a cobblestone road where village dignitaries had once presented a live pig to the maillot jaune, the leader of the Tour de France, some years ago.

Finally, after way too many early morning bus rides and late-night cocktails to bother counting, we were feted with a special “end of tour” reception in a huge, ornate conference room at city hall in Rennes, Brittany’s provincial capital.

The massive conference table where we were seated was so huge it could have accommodated the entire party that signed the Treaty of Versailles, and there were so many government officials in attendance it rivaled the sidelines at an NFL football game.

Minus the cheerleaders, unfortunately.

We sat through nearly an hour of speeches and toasts to the glories of Brittany’s agricultural progress—enhanced, we were reminded, by the innovative, labor-saving techno-miracles embodied in the French machinery we’d seen on display virtually everywhere we visited.

In fact, for decades before and since that memorable trip, the so-called “Brittany model” has been touted by French private-sector executives and government officials alike as the ideal way to counteract the slow decline of the country’s—and of Europe’s—farming and livestock regions. As is true in The States, western European countries are struggling with the dual challenges of declining population and disappearing manufacturing, with the consequent disruption of the economic growth vital to every country’s rural communities.

As is also true in the USA, the development of intensive livestock production, along with a locally based packing and processing facilities, once helped Brittany enjoy relative economic prosperity.

Farm country fury

However, that model is now in trouble, according to a report published on the news site, as plans are underway to shutter several meatpacking plants, including Gad, a major pork packing plant in the province’s western department of Finistère. Gad recently announced that it would lay off some 850 workers, and the French government is scrambling for a way “to calm down angry producers and workers,” the report stated.

In addition, a nearby poultry plant that employs around 100 people and a Norwegian-owned salmon canning plant that employs 450 people are both slated for shutdown. In 2012, according to the story, a partial closure of the Breton poultry company Doux resulted in 900 workers being laid off.

“These were the kind of ominous announcements that preceded the death knell of key French industries in the past, plunging wide swaths of the [nation] into chronic unemployment to this day,” the report stated, noting that in Brittany unemployment is hovering around 8.4 percent, only marginally better than the French national average of 10.2 percent.

Brittany’s business owners and farmers’ unions are now claiming that the region faces a full-blown “agribusiness crisis,” and to publicize their plight, meat-industry workers occupied railroad tracks this past week to block the operations of the high-speed TVG train that travels to Brest, the main city in Finistère.

“Protests have also been organized against France’s so-called ‘ecotax,’ slated to go into effect in January 2014,” the report stated. “Meant to target large, polluting trucks, businessmen and farmers say the new levy will increase the cost of transporting their products to market and shrink revenues.”

According to, “Much of the anger in Brittany has been directed at Germany, who French meatpacking businesses accuse of unfair social dumping. They say German competitors are employing Eastern European workers in that country’s abattoirs at wages of only €3 or €4 euros an hour under Germany’s ‘mini-job’ regime.”

In a letter to French President François Hollande, Coordination Rurale, the French farmers’ union, called on the president to “make EU countries, and Germany in particular, listen to reason,” in order to stop a practice they said was, “devastating and contrary to the vision of the founding EU fathers.”

Hollande reacted swiftly, and €15 million euros have been set aside to help the Gad pork plant stay open, the government announced. Plus, Brittany’s chamber of commerce said it would provide €6 million euros of its own to help find and finance a buyer for the struggling plant.

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced that going forward, milk tankers and other vehicles used for agricultural purposes would be exempt from the ecotax. Ayrault also promised that the government would determine whether producers and farmers in Brittany could qualify for other ecotax exceptions.

Here’s my question: Why doesn’t our government respond in a similar fashion to the struggles of American producers and farmers?

I don’t mean by embracing France’s socialist approach, but how about at least an expression of concern from our national politicians? The U.S. agricultural economy is ten times bigger and more important to our economy than its counterpart is to France, but Congress can’t even pass a lousy farm bill once every five years.

I’m tempted to write c’est la vie, but given the economic straits of many of our country’s rural areas, that would be an insult—in any language.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Wyo  |  October, 31, 2013 at 10:29 AM

My conclusions about the lessons to be learned from the French……are much different than yours. For me this is just another indicator that socialism and big government does NOT work.

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