PARIS, Feb 21 – France’s annual crop and livestock show opened on Saturday with President Nicolas Sarkozy promising farmers to help prepare them to face a future with smaller European subsidies.
Part trade fair and part family day out, the week-long jamboree is expected to draw half-a-million visitors to an exhibition centre in Paris and allow city dwellers to reconnect with French farming traditions.
It is also a highly political event, an annual opportunity for a string of Paris-based politicians to have themselves photographed with one of the 650 prize cattle, 550 sheep and 140 horses on show.
Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, has a country retreat of his own in the Correze farming heartland and was a farm show natural, clearly enjoying the ritual and a chance to talk to farming leaders.
The new president, the former mayor of one of Paris’ plushest suburbs, is less comfortable at the show. Last year, Sarkozy was caught on video telling a visitor who refused to shake his hand: "Get lost, you stupid bastard."
On Saturday, he came to mend fences, and to promise farmers his support in efforts to prepare the countryside for the imminent reform of the European Union’s generous programme of farm subsidies.
"They’re right to be passionate about this job, and its a great bonus for us to have the world’s second most important agricultural sector," Sarkozy said, after patting a cow’s muzzle in front of a forest of cameras.
"Farmers are worried like everyone else in France — there’s an economic crisis. I’ve found them to be determined and passionate and only asking for one thing, to be able to work," he added.
There was no sign of hostility to the president at the fair — although he steered clear of stands from France’s overseas islands, where there has been recent unrest — and a well-drilled team of supporters chanted his name.
"I hope he eats horse meat," said one farmer handing out samples of this popular French treat. "He must do, he moves so fast," laughed another, as the presidential party swept through the exhibition hall.
French farmers are the main benefactors of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), taking 10 billion euros (12.8 billion dollars) a year from the 53 billion euro pot, despite now being only one of 27 countries in an expanding Union.
The farmers are known for staging spectacular and disruptive protests when these handouts come under threat, and previous French leaders have fought tooth and nail to preserve generous handouts to the sector.
But Europe’s other countries, in particular new eastern entrants with large rural populations of their own, are not going to accept indefinitely this state of affairs, and the CAP is to be renegotiated by 2013.
This week, therefore, Sarkozy announced that France would prepare itself for the loss of some of its subsidy with its own programme; 300 million euros worth of reforms by 2010 to prepare farms for the future.
"I’d rather that we push through these changes ourselves in the framework of a new agricultural policy rather than waiting quietly for a catastrophe to fall on us in 2013," Sarkozy said on Thursday.
Details of the plan — to be included in a law to be passed by the end of 2009 — will be revealed during the week of festivities, but it will encourage farmers to focus on sustainable development and high quality produce.