As far as the French go, José Bové is no ordinary Frenchman. At times he has come across as larger than life, stirring up a crowd in Seattle… interfering with construction of a MacDonalds deep in France… trampling biotech corn… cuffed off to jail… leading protest sit-ins at multinational companies. He’s a farmer. But two years ago he went from herding sheep in southwest France into fulltime politics. The former farm union leader from Larzac is now a member of the European Parliament.
Bové told euronews: “I don’t feel I’ve sold my soul to the devil. I’m here where decisions are taken, I’m here to take part. I’m not turning my back on battles in the field, which are also important for me. At the moment, for example, I’m fighting multinational shale oil prospectors. It’s crazy to let them do that. For me it’s essential to go into battle locally, but also to mobilise at a European level and internationally.”
Now nesting in the treetops of power, the ex-agitator has come to grips with the institutional rigging, studying it acutely. We spent a day with Bové during a parliamentary full sitting in Strasbourg. In the close quarters of his office, the elected member and his two assistants scan and parse the day’s programme, early in the marathon to which he has become accustomed.
Bové said: “You have to understand the way it works if you’re going to be efficient. Otherwise you could just talk a lot of hot air at the European Parliament, it’s true. We really are called on to deal with a pile of subjects. If you don’t set yourself specific goals you can just flap around. When I arrived here I had a clear objective: questions about agriculture and international trade. Those are my main activities.”
It is not easy to keep up with Bové as he goes about his business, bent on changing the system from the inside, as much as that’s possible. He was elected under the flag of the Greens in 2009 and then slipped naturally into the vice-president’s seat in the agriculture committee, a strategic position to defend Europe’s farmers.
Leaving the assembly chamber, we find Bové with Greens veteran Daniel Cohn-Bendit. These two were diametrically opposed in 2005 over the referendum in France on the European constitution. But they say that’s now water under the bridge.
Cohn-Bendit said: “Some of his criticism was not wrong. We chose to go a different way. We said that in spite of what he was against it’s a step forward. He said that in spite of the progress we cannot vote in favour. The problem isn’t to agree on everything; the problem is to be in the same political area, where we can wage battles together, and discuss our diverging points of view.”
José Bové in 2005 opposed a model of ever-increasing productivity, but he said that does not make him anti-European.
Bové said: “I’m a federalist first, because I really think that the biggest obstacles for Europe today are the nation-states, which prevent Europe from evolving. We see that where the budget is concerned. The European budget is less than 1% of GDP of all the EU countries put together. That’s ridiculous. Countries have to understand that the future of Europe’s 500 million people rides on having a real budget, and therefore depends on a federal Europe.”
Scene change for lunch: we move to one of Strasbourg’s traditional taverns, bearing various hallmarks of the Alsace region. Bové is hosting a debate attended by local and European journalists. 6’48 Genetically modified food, commodity speculation and climate change top the discussion menu. He’s happy to announce that he has been officially designated to write the parliament’s position paper on products used in agriculture such as pesticides and fertilizer. He is in his element, though he admits that media exposure has a double edge.
Bové said: “If you’re not out there, people say you’re not where things are happening and they hold it against you. But if they see you on television a few times, they say ‘oh, it’s him again, we see nothing but him.’ Striking a balance is very tricky. What I try to do is be present in relation to current events, with what I do.”
Bové is also here to talk about a new book he has written with French journalist Jean Quatremer. It is about Bové‘s vision of Europe. It is hard to shake the image of the eternal rebel.
Quatremer said: “There’s the side Asterix the Gaul, with the mustache, and the man whose actions really grab the media’s attention — like dismantling a MacDonalds, spoiling GM experimental fields… It’s very simple, black and white. The media doesn’t like grey areas. But we have to see things clearly. He has used this caricature. It has been very useful, because perhaps people also like someone they can identify with, who is really simple, not complicated. It’s hard to relate to complexity.”
Back in the parliament Bové wants to sit in on a meeting of the working group on the Middle East that. A French former ambassador to the United Nations, decorated diplomat Stéphane Hessel, is guest of honour. He and ecologists like Bové enjoy a long, close acquaintance.
Hessel said: “The way I see it, 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 onto him, because his unmannerly intrusion shows us the way towards true values.”
At eight in the evening the upstart was not done yet. He quit the broadloomed parliament for linoleum in a Strasbourg poor neighbourhood, to lend his support to local election candidates in the Europe Ecologie party. He can let his hair down here, speak frankly — as he always has.