Jérôme Bayle had spent seven nights on a major French highway, leading a group of disgruntled farmers, when the Prime Minister arrived, dressed in his Parisian blue suit and tie, to thank them for having “made France proud” and announced that he would meet them. their requests.
In front of the camera flashes and the microphones held out, Mr. Bayle declared to Prime Minister Gabriel Attal that he had seen the standoff as a match between two teams: the revolting farmers, led by Mr. Bayle, and the government, directed by Mr. Attal.
“I don’t like losing,” said Mr. Bayle, dressed decidedly more casually, with a baseball cap on his head, facing backwards. The dense crowd around him laughed. It was clear that his team had won.
Mr. Bayle, 42, a former professional rugby player, is widely credited with sparking a nationwide farmers’ protest movement that erupted this week. brought their grievances to the capitalblocking the highways to Paris, despite new promises on Tuesday from Mr. Attal to protect them from “unfair competition”.
Dissatisfied, farmers say they will continue the disruptions to draw attention to what they call the unbearable difficulties of growing food to feed the French nation.
Mr. Bayle knows these sufferings intimately. He took over his family’s grain and cattle farm in 2015, after finding the lifeless body of his father, Alain. His father was depressed because he was facing retirement with no savings, Mr. Bayle said, and he shot himself in the head. Suicide became a worrying touchstone for Mr. Bayle.
“I didn’t want to see my friends doing the same thing,” he said in an interview from his farm, about 35 kilometers from Toulouse.
The last few years have been terrible for local farmers. They were first hit by repeated attacks droughts, and the collapse of consumer demand for organic food after many farmers made the difficult switch. Then a midge-borne disease crossed the nearby snow-covered Pyrenees from Spain and infected many of their livestock, causing death and miscarriages. And this is only in the southwest corner of Mr. Bayle’s country.
More broadly, not just in France but across Europe, farmers are complaining about rising costs due to inflation and the war in Ukraine. These burdens have been exacerbated as governments seek to save money by removing agricultural subsidies, even as the European Union imposes more regulations on farmers to meet climate and other environmental goals.
It has become too much, farmers say.
Mr Bayle was among hundreds of farmers who took to the streets of Toulouse earlier this month in their tractors, joining a protest organized by unions with a series of demands aimed at the government.
The farmers were in the town’s beautiful pink main square, lined with cafes, when they learned that the meeting between their union leaders and the local prefect – the highest government official in the French system – had brought no results. no concrete relief. Friends put a microphone in Mr. Bayle’s hands, knowing he could rally the crowd.
“I’m not waiting any longer,” roared Mr. Bayle, his words coated in the melodious accent of the southwest. He called on those who “are proud of this work” to block the highway.
Two days later, an army of tractors stopped on the highway that connects Toulouse to the Spanish border, near the town of Carbonne, with bales of hay to put in place. When the gendarmes appeared, Mr. Bayle said he would not leave until the farmers received concrete solutions to three pressing problems, or the police shot him in the head.
“He’s the only one who can do it.” He has charisma,” said Joël Tournier, 43, a fellow farmer who would later take charge of the logistics of the blockade.
As the days passed, their ranks grew, as did the donations, until their blockade under a highway overpass transformed into the city’s hippest hangout, complete with a spit-flipping wild boar and a DJ playing music on a speaker. They installed portable toilets and a storage container filled with hay served as a giant collective bed.
Twice a day, they hung a mannequin dressed in a wetsuit from the upper deck – to vaguely represent the suicide rate among French farmers, which remains high, despite government programs to remedy it.
“We did everything without the unions,” said Bertrand Loup, 46, a grain and beef producer who helped manage the blockade. “That’s why people supported us. They felt like we were speaking from our hearts.
National polls revealed huge support for the movement they had started, and other actions began across the country. Most residents accepted and tolerated truck traffic passing through Carbonne to bypass the roadblock, according to Mayor Denis Turrel.
“What they did made perfect sense,” said Frank Bardon, 66, a retired physiotherapist and osteopath, who was walking his dog on the town’s main street with his family on Sunday. “Their living conditions are difficult. »
Farmers followed a revolutionary tradition deeply rooted in France. In 1953, winegrowers, seeing their profits collapse, placed their wooden carts on a national road at the start of the summer holidays to demand government aid and offer tastings to lost drivers. It worked so well that a model was established, and farmers in the southwest followed suit a few months later, said Édouard Lynch, professor of contemporary French history at the University of Lyon 2.
“They always win a little bit,” said Mr. Lynch, the book’s author.Peasant uprising.” “It’s effective.”
Farmers make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population, but they loom large in the national psyche — in part because France industrialized relatively late, Mr. Lynch said.
“The French have real sympathy for farmers. Everyone says, ‘My father or my grandfather was a farmer,'” he said.
So it was perhaps not surprising that the Prime Minister, followed by two ministers and a prefect, came to the blockade for a guided tour and a glass of red wine. Although his friends were shocked, Mr. Bayle was not.
“He had no choice,” he says, sitting on a giant tractor tire in front of his stable, taking a moment off to enjoy the sun and the success of the movement. He was exhausted – he had only slept three hours a night during the blockade. And his phone continued to beep and ring with requests from journalists.
“It was like he was a rock star,” said Mr. Turrel, the mayor, describing the crowd’s reaction to Mr. Bayle. “He spoke from his heart and with words of suffering that radiated phenomenal power. »
From the beginning, Mr. Bayle had demanded concrete solutions to three concrete problems: easing the process of building water reservoirs, providing financial support to farms infected with epizootic hemorrhagic disease and abandoning the imminent increase in the cost of fuel for tractors.
Mr. Attal delivered the three last Fridaythen Mr. Bayle announced the end of his blockade – and his protest.
While the leaders of two powerful agricultural unions declared a siege on Paris, carrying a long list of their own grievances, Mr. Bayle and his team returned to their barns to catch up on all the work they had neglected.
Some have criticized Mr. Bayle’s group as selfish; others sold out.
“They should do as well as we do,” Mr. Tournier said of the criticism, sitting in his kitchen, a bag containing his clothes from the blockade slumped nearby, still unpacked. “A small group of friends, in one week, moved the Prime Minister and two ministers. We united the country. We have shown that we can do great things with loyal people and friends. You can do beautiful things.
From his spot in the sun, Mr Bayle said he never expected to change the French agricultural model in a week and had no interest in going into politics despite his obvious flair for speaking out .
“My life is here on the farm,” he said. “We got the ball rolling from here. Today, others are taking over and the objective is to obtain ever more measurements.”