If François Hollande looks relieved in the picture above, it is because he has just emerged unscathed from a visit to the peasant organisation Confédération Paysanne (la Conf’) while opening last year’s Salon de l’Agriculture. He was the first French president in 50 years to visit a grassroots peasant organisation at France’s flagship food and farming event. Exactly what he said is off the record, but if he has any reason to worry, it is because he will be judged by family farmers on results.

This weekend, France’s largest farm arrives in Paris for the 51st Salon de l’Agriculture. More than 4,000 animals accompanied by their owners, handlers, an army of officials, security guards and more livestock judges than you can throw a rule book at, are converging on the Porte de Versailles showground.

Pig at the Salon de l’AgricultureFor nine days, hundreds of thousands of visitors from every corner of France and beyond, will visit the capital to share a potent national vision of French farming. Last year nearly 700,000 people made the pilgrimage to see one of the most spectacular food and farming events staged anywhere in the world.

Above all, the Salon de l’Agriculture is a family event. It’s an occasion when grandparents indulge grandchildren, and parents can be sure of finding something to suit every age-group. Schools book by the coach load, safe in the knowledge that educational activities have been planned with military precision, months in advance.

The strong educational focus of the Salon de l’Agriculture is apparent at every turn, with a range of national, regional and local government bodies exhibiting at the show. The facts are official, whatever story they tell.

The Salon de l’Agriculture is always toured by the president of the republic, who progresses serenely around the site encircled by a media scrum. These marathon official tours are an unofficial barometer of presidential popularity, and public confidence in national food production. Nicolas Sarkozy was heavily criticised for leaving after just a couple of hours after a tantrum on his first presidential visit. Hollande’s eight-hour tour passed muster last year, but is by no means a record.

Children's tasting class at the Salon de l’Agriculture

It has always been a platform for politicians of every stripe, and reflects the power of farming interests in France and the votes they represent. Support of the Salon de l’Agriculture is as much a vote of confidence in French farming policy as it is for farming itself. This is why it was such a milestone for Hollande to have reached when he visited the Conf’ stand last year. It will be interesting to see if he repeats the exercise, since French farming policy has been harder on family farming during the post-war years than the show’s aspirational images would lead one to imagine.

From a land of six million peasants in the 1960s under General de Gaulle, the past half century has seen the number of farms drop to about half a million. Within the space of two generations, rural populations have both shrunk and aged as children moved into towns to follow less demanding career paths, with more regular hours.

As the size of holdings rose, hedgerows disappeared from arable landscapes to ease access for bigger machines. Partly in response to growing capital requirements, sharing equipment through cooperatives is common: every second French farmer is a member of at least one cooperative.

As well as empowering collective capital, the largest French farmer-owned cooperatives are huge vertically-integrated food processing businesses, operating abattoirs, packhouses and even household name food brands, often staffed with wage labour rather than cooperators.

Cow-hat-IMG_0520Ongoing crises in the livestock sector have tested some cooperatives to the limit, particularly since cereal price rises have not been recoverable from multiple retailers. Other sectors have faced similar treatment as a handful of retailers became gatekeepers for a food market that is run on their terms.

A collective memory of rural life runs deep within French society however, and underpins the genuine popularity of the Salon de l’Agriculture. Last year nearly 700,000 voted with their feet and visited the show. It is wrapped up with memories of grandparents and uncles, aunts or parents, whose farmhouses have often become holiday homes – if they are still inhabited at all. A rose-tinted image is projected onto French farming, which is increasingly industrialised and remains a heavy user of pesticides, despite an ongoing government reduction plan.

One consequence of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the past has been to favour large-scale producers at the expense of family farming. If president Hollande plans to return to the Confédération Paysanne stand at the Salon de l’Agriculture during this UN year of Family Farming, he will be judged on what his policy, the newly-reformed CAP, is going to do to help French farming, not what was promised a year ago.

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