Profile: José Bové The rural rebel

José Bové has used his fluent English, media-savviness and understanding of French concerns to become a household name

30 September 2012

A rural activist with a global focus, José Bové has used his fluent English, media-savviness and understanding of French concerns to become a household name and a leading environmental and anti-globalisation campaigner

With his droopy moustache, pipe and practical country clothing, José Bové is an unlikely celebrity. A former sheep farmer, tireless environmental activist and anti-globalisation campaigner, he was catapulted into the spotlight in 1999 for ransacking a McDonalds restaurant and is well-known for his fight against genetically modified crops. He caught even more attention when he ran for president in 2007 and today he is a European MP and remains in the news – most recently for suggesting that wolves, a protected species in France, should be shot.

Articulate and charismatic, Bové is a fluent English-speaker who understands how best to work with the media. He has successfully tapped into a number of French fears – such as challenges to cultural identity, culinary tradition and the importance of local produce.

AFP described him once as “an instantly recognisable figure, with his extravagant moustache and pipe-smoking habit, popping up wherever there is an ecological axe to grind”. One French journalist who has worked closely with him, Jean Quatremer, says: “There’s this Asterix the Gaul side to him, with the moustache – the man whose actions really grab the media’s attention. He has used this caricature. People like someone they can identify with, who is really simple, not complicated.” Born in Talence, near Bordeaux, Bové spent some of his early childhood years in California, where both of his parents had moved to work in biochemistry research at Berkeley university.

Back in France, aged six, he attended a bilingual primary school in Paris. He was not involved in the May 1968 riots, but said in an interview: “Of course I was affected by what was going on. I didn’t do much [activism as a teenager], apart from an occupation of the school football pitch. When I was 17 I got involved in the struggle against military service – for the rights of conscientious objectors.”

He spent a year at university in Bordeaux but dropped out to concentrate on activism and the work with conscientious objector associations. It was doing this work that he became aware of a struggle by sheep farmers on the Larzac plateau in the Aveyron, who were protesting against government plans for a six-fold increase in the size of the military training base there, displacing 500 farms and 15,000 sheep.

Bové and his wife Alice loved the area and decided to move there in 1975. He became a sheep farmer and helped to co-ordinate the peaceful protest, including overseeing the building of an illegal barn right in the middle of the land that was earmarked to be expropriated. The protests intensified until the new Mitterrand government backed down in 1981.

Bové says of the Larzac battle: “We won because we were able to rally people through media images and symbolic protests. We galvanised popular feeling around the issue. If you don’t find a way to reach people, you can be as right as you want about something, but you’re not going to change anything.”

It would prove to be the first in a long line of non-violent disobedience from Bové, who set up the Confédération Paysanne in 1987 to promote and lobby for an alternative vision of sustainable farming. He was heavily involved in Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior protest against nuclear testing in the south Pacific and has had many run-ins with police for trampling fields of genetically modified corn and rice plants, both in France and Brazil.

But it was the McDonalds incident that caught the world media attention – and led to 44 days in prison. In August 1999, Bové led a group of 300 people who dismantled a new branch of the burger chain in Millau, Aveyron. Farmers, unionists and members of the public smashed windows and doors and tore out furniture, loading the rubble on to trucks and tractors and dumping it outside the mairie.

Bové says it was not so much an anti-globalisation protest as one against bad food – la malbouffe. It was also a retaliation after the US increased import duties on Roquefort cheese (for which he was a milk supplier) in response to an EU ban on hormone-treated beef.Bové says he told police about the plans beforehand but they did not take him seriously. He told France Info: “The objective was to have a non-violent but symbolically forceful action, in broad daylight and with the largest participation possible. The problem is that we are in a society which won’t budge and in which there is no other way of making yourself heard than by taking action. There are times when it is better to be in prison for something right and legitimate than to be outside and to say: I didn't do anything to change things.”

His trial turned into a media circus, with an estimated 40,000 people from France and around the world showing up to support him. Bové later reported to prison in a convoy of tractors, blocking the roads for six hours. “We were on the front page of the New York Times,” he recalls. “This was not an anti-American action. It can be a struggle against any country.”

Asked at the time if he would ever stand in an election, he said: “Never. That’s not my role. I would never see it as my role to act like the leader of a political party. The aim of a social movement or a union like ours is to enable people to act for themselves.”

That changed in 2007, with an unsuccessful presidential bid – fighting for “the people who have no voice”. After the elections, Bové became more closely associated with Europe Ecologie, eventually becoming elected as their MEP for the south-west of France. On becoming an MEP, Bové said: “I don’t feel

I’ve sold my soul to the devil. I’m not turning my back on battles in the field, which are also important for me. For me it’s essential to go into battle locally, but also to mobilise at a European level and internationally.”

Former ambassador to the UN, Stéphane Hessel, says of Bové’s work: “We have too many well-behaved people who accomplish nothing. But we have a few upstarts, and when you get one of those you have to hang on to them.”

Biography

1953 Born Joseph Bové in Talence, near Bordeaux (Gironde). Spent three years in California as a child

1975 Moved to Larzac with wife Alice and joined sheep farmers’ campaign

1987 Set up Confédération Paysanne

1995 Joined Greenpeace on Rainbow Warrior protesting nuclear testing in Pacific Ocean

1999 Ransacked a McDonalds in Millau. Later imprisoned for 44 days

2003 Helicopter raid on his house prompts fierce campaign against police

2007 One of 12 candidates in presidential election, scored 1.32% in first round

2009 Elected European MP for south-west France, representing the green party Europe Ecologie

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