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Paris Agriculture Fair: Where cows, pigs and politicians strut their stuff

French President Emmanuel Macron poses with the mascot of the 57th Paris Agriculture Fair, a Charolais cow named Idéale, on Saturday, February 22, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron poses with the mascot of the 57th Paris Agriculture Fair, a Charolais cow named Idéale, on Saturday, February 22, 2020. © Ludovic Marin, Reuters

It’s the event of the year for animal-lovers in Paris and for farmers from all over France. The Paris Agriculture Fair (Salon International de l’Agriculture) opened to the public on Saturday, to showcase cows, goats, pigs, chickens and… France’s leading politicians.

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The Salon is not only a huge attraction for families who swarm the enormous expo centre that is turned into a mega-farm this time every year to see animals they would never encounter in the city: It is also an annual rite of passage for French presidents and leaders from across the political spectrum.

Among the political highlights was the 2008 visit of then president Nicolas Sarkozy in the first year of his term, when he was caught on camera telling a farmer who refused to shake his hand, “casse toi, pauvre con,” (for which “Get lost, you jerk” is a polite translation).

Sarkozy later expressed remorse for that indiscreet outburst, widely mocked by his opponents. “That was an act of stupidity that I regret to this day,” he wrote in his book, “La France Pour la Vie,” published in 2016. “It dragged down the dignity of the presidency.”

The antagonism of that encounter was all the more striking because of its contrast with the farmers’ warm embrace of Sarkozy’s predecessor, president Jacques Chirac.

Chirac was a fêted fixture at the show, every year spending hours strolling from booth to booth, congratulating breeders for their magnificent livestock, sharing a glass of wine and complimenting farmers on their cheeses or sausages.

“He went from oysters to cheese to meat to drinks, until 11pm,” Christophe Gabert, a breeder from the Isère region in the country’s southeast, told France Info radio. “Nobody knows how he managed to digest everything he ate! He started at 7am.”

Chirac’s close connection to France’s farmers was formed when he was minister of agriculture in the early ‘70s, well before he became president. Between becoming minister of agriculture in 1972 and his retirement from public life in 2011, Chirac missed only one fair – in 1979, following a car accident.

This year’s show, the first since Chirac died in September 2019, features a photo exhibition of his visits there.

“I only saw him from afar but he was someone who exuded warmth,” Julien Villemard, a breeder of cows from the Charolais area in Burgundy, told France Info. “He was a man of the people, a man of the land, someone who was appreciated by 90 percent of the farming population. He left his mark not only on the Agriculture Fair, but on agriculture in general.”

>> FRENCH CONNECTIONS : Holy cow! Understanding France's love of the Agriculture Fair

Macron reassures farmers

President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated this year’s show on Saturday morning, beginning his visit with a tribute to Chirac.

As he strolled the aisles of the fair, Macron tasted specialties from various regions in France and posed for photos with the mascot of this year’s show, a commanding blonde Charolais cow named Idéale.

Visiting a day after a summit meeting in Brussels on the next EU budget, which ended in a deadlock, Macron tried to reassure farmers that his government would continue to oppose cuts to EU agricultural subsidies. France is a major beneficiary of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and Macron, like his predecessors, François Hollande, Sarkozy and Chirac, has been its ardent defender.

“We didn’t sacrifice the Common Agricultural Policy and I was very clear about it: It won’t be the CAP that pays for Brexit,” he declared before leaving for the summit on Friday.

Last year Macron spent a record 14 and a half hours at the agriculture fair, longer than any single visit by a president (in 2018 he spent 12 hours at the show).

But his relationship with French farmers has not been conflict-free: They did not appreciate his determination to gradually phase out the use of glyphosate and resented being depicted as polluters. During his visit Saturday morning Macron tried to reassure them, saying the popular herbicide would not be banned where there were no alternatives.

“We are behind our farmers and cultivators. They feed us every day. We must be proud of French agriculture,” he said.

He continued: "I know I can count on the sector as a whole to modernise successfully, keeping agriculture strong while managing to reduce pesticide use, doing so in a gradual manner that allows farmers to maintain their livelihoods,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Emmanuel Macron attends the Paris Agriculture Fair

‘The lengths to which you need to go…’

Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, also regularly visited the show. In 2012, ahead of the presidential elections facing Sarkozy, he spent 12 hours at the show, trying to rally the farmers, traditionally supporters of the right, and campaigning. As he stopped in the early morning of his visit to vigorously brush a Gascony cow in front of the cameras, a visitor to the show, overheard and quoted by French media, sighed, “the lengths to which you need to go to become president....”

After taking office Hollande continued spending many hours at the show every year. But in 2016, after a particularly difficult year for farmers, with the agricultural sector in a crisis and revenues in a freefall, Hollande was booed and insulted when he arrived at the fair, and the ministry of agriculture's stand was dismantled by angry young farmers.

The Salon de l'Agriculture has always presented an opportunity to make a political point. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) has used it as a backdrop for criticising the government.

On the other end of the political spectrum, in 2017, when most presidential candidates went to the fair to campaign, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of leftist party France Unbowed (La France Insoumise), snubbed the show, saying he was strongly opposed to the intensive agricultural norms currently practised in France. Instead he held an “ecology day” for his supporters at the Parc Floral in the Bois de Vincennes across town.

Family event

Politics aside, the Salon de l'Agriculture attracts 600,000 visitors every year.

Among the many attractions is the milking parlour, where visitors can watch as cows are milked. Around 500 dairy cows of 14 different breeds are milked at the show (some 250 per session, depending on the day and other competitions held), producing a total of about 45,000 to 50,000 litres at the event, according to the show’s website.

Visitors are also invited to go behind the scenes with France’s grain growers: At the animal feed factory, families can attend a workshop to learn how cereals are used in the preparation of feed, at the end of which children can feed the animals. There are also daily demonstrations of how French and other breads are made from flours from French grains.

Horses and donkeys also star at the fair, with the French Equestrian Federation offering pony rides for children.

And another children’s favourite is organised by the Central Canine Socity, which has joined forces with the official register of dog and cat pedigrees to create the first-ever dogs and cats hub. The hub will display some of the most popular cat breeds, such as Maine Coons, British Shorthairs and Persians, and hold dog shows with police dogs, guide dogs, agility dogs, herding dogs and others.

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