The presidential visit to the Salon de l’Agriculture is an institution on the French political calendar. Former French President Jacques Chirac made his name (in part) by patting cows and gorging on cheese and saucisson.
Last year, current urbanite President Nicolas Sarkozy failed dramatically to live up to his predecessor’s charm. Which is why, his time around, with his popularity on the slide, another gaffe was the last thing the president could afford.
And so Sarkozy was all smiles as he toured the cavernous halls of France’s largest exhibition centre, at Porte de Versailles in Paris. And it has to be said that many of the farmers were pleasantly surprised.
Two days before the event the President had announced measures to prepare France for Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform – measures which included the re-institution of subsidies worth up to 300 million euros, which had been due for scrapping. And at the salon he made declarations that sounded very much like a resolution to defend the CAP, which favours France more than any other European nation, to the hilt.
“France needs farming and it needs prices that allow farmers to make a living”, Sarkozy said, adding that “Europe must protect its farmers.”
So on policy lines, the differences with Chirac seem to be wearing away. In terms of style, the stallholders could scarcely hide their preference for Mr. Chirac, who would habitually spend several hours touring the food hall and sampling endless specialties.
Sarkozy declined to visit those stands, limiting himself to the livestock and technology sections. “They each have their own style”, says Gaec Quayrel, a cattle farmer and veteran of the salon since François Mitterrand’s day. All in all, Sarkozy’s appearance could only be called a relative success.
Meanwhile crowds thronged the halls – lots of families with children impressed by the animals and eager to pat them – and not only children. Large numbers of urban-looking adults happily communed with beasts, taking videos and admiring weights and sizes.
This is the same exhibition centre where the Paris motor show is held, and the animals are laid out in much the same way, organized by breed and region.
Once the public is done looking at the animals, it’s time to move on, without a hint of squeamishness, to eating parts of them: beyond the main livestock hall are the international stands. Some sell produce and serve meals; others prefer to offer more serious video presentations of their country’s farming prowess… over a glass of vodka in the case of the Russian section.
And then beyond that is what surely must be the main attraction for most adults: the section devoted to French regions and their produce. Champagne flavoured jam was the highlight of my cheeky sampling tour, though there were also a number of hams and cheeses I’ll be going back for. A South-western French lunch of Tête de Veau in hot vinaigrette, on the other hand, was a fatty disappointment.