Farmer in a Cell?

Among the oddest side shows in the current Middle East impasse was the short-lived appearance of French farmer and trade unionist Jose Bove in the Ramallah compound of besieged Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat. Arrested outside the compound by the Israeli Defense Force on April 2, Bove -- who gained international attention after destroying a McDonalds in the southern French town of Millau in 1999 -- was deported to Paris the next day.

Bove has become, in recent years, a surprisingly ubiquitous international figure, turning up at Zapatista marches in Mexico and anti-trade conferences from Seattle to Brazil. And part of the reason for his ubiquity is that he is not a farmer-turned-activist at all.

Instead, he is a self-proclaimed activist-turned-farmer who has spent less and less time on his Millau farm in recent years and who routinely inserts himself into international controversies.

Bove, born in Bordeaux in 1953, grew up living with parents who were highly mobile agricultural chemists. His family spent several years living in Berkeley, California, and Bove later attended secondary school in a Parisian suburb. In the early 1970s, he recalled in a 2001 interview with the New Left Review, he became influenced by the mix of anarcho-syndicalist, Spanish Civil War, and Gandhian philosophies then popular with the French left movement in Bordeaux.

Bove still considers himself an anarcho-syndicalist, according to an October
2000 Times of London profile. Anarcho-syndicalism, in France, gave rise to one of that nation's oldest trade unions, the Confederation Generale du Travail, now run by the French Communist Party. The philosophy, developed in its early years by the likes of Mikhail Bakunin, is generally understood as one that sees the working class as a means toward achieving an anarchist society.

Bove's disdain for international organizations such as the World Trade Organization is matched only by his belief that states themselves are increasingly irrelevant. "We no longer live under conditions of traditional management and inter-state conflicts, but in the middle of a war between private powers with the market as the battleground," he explained in an extract from his book, The World is Not For Sale, published on June 13, 2001 in The Guardian. "The strength of the global movement [that is gathering around the world] is precisely that it differs from place to place, while building confidence between people. Today, people mobilise without wanting to take over state institutions, and maybe this is a new way of conducting politics. The future lies in changing daily life by acting on an international

Bove has been "acting" on many levels, in many places, for quite some time. After leading a protest that shut down his Catholic school in 1968, Bove attended the University of Bordeaux. He soon dropped out to became an anti-military activist, eventually working as an organizer with a small group of French farmers in the rocky, windswept Larzac region. They were protesting the expansion of a Ministry of Defence training area onto land they used to farm sheep. It was not until 1985 that the Larzac conflict was finally settled, with an agreement allowing the farmers to rent the land from the government. But by the winter of 1975–76, Bove and his wife had moved into a farmhouse on the military-owned land, squatting at first and later becoming part of a sheep-farming collective that produced Roquefort cheeses. In 1976, Bove spent three weeks in jail for invading a military outpost.

In 1987, Bove helped found and became a leading spokesperson for the Confederation Paysanne, a radical farmer's union designed to champion small producers. And his activism continued. Among other protests, in 1988, Bove and the confederation helped organize the "Plowing the Champs Elysees" protest in Paris to object to European farm policies. In 1990, he led protests and hunger strikes demanding more government subsidies for sheep farmers. And in 1995, he joined Greenpeace activists on the Rainbow Warrior II to protest renewed French nuclear testing.

Bove has also shown a particular vengeance when it comes to certain food products. In 1999, after the United States slapped a 100 percent duty on Roquefort cheese in response to a European decision to ban importation of hormone-treated U.S. beef, Bove led a group of farmers and activists in an assault on a half-built McDonalds in Millau. "The Americans took Roquefort hostage, so we had to act beyond the law to defend ourselves," he told The Times of London. After dismantling the Millau McDonalds -- removing doors, roofing, and electrical plates using a tractor, axes, and chainsaws -- Bove spent 23 days in jail. The French courts subsequently gave him a stiff three month jail term for the attack, but Bove has continued to appeal his sentence.

Undeterred, in January, 2001, Bove helped lead an invasion by 1,300 farmers into wrecking genetically modified Brazilian corn and soybean fields managed by U.S. biotechnology firm Monsanto. They pulled up the crops, burned seeds, and destroyed documents in the company's offices, according to an Agence-France Presse report. In March of that same year, Bove was sentenced to a 10-month suspended prison term and two years of probation in Montpellier, France, for destroying genetically modified rice plants inside a research laboratory in 1999. Bove and two co-defendants from Confederation Paysanne were also ordered to pay $48,500 dollars in fines and damages. (Bove's later appeal of that sentence was spectacularly unsuccessful, and he was resentenced, in December 2001, to six months in jail. He has appealed the case again, and, under French law, need not begin serving his time until he has exhausted his appeals.)

His recent trip to Ramallah was not Bove's first visit to the West Bank. A June 21, 2001, story in The Independent describes an earlier confrontation between the Israelis and Bove's international activist colleagues, led by Canadian-Israeli Neta Golan, in Al-Khader, a Palestinian village on the southern edge of Bethlehem. Golan is currently holed up with Arafat in Ramallah.

It started peacefully enough. Mr Bove was greeted by the local Israeli police commander, Ephriam Arditi, plus around 60 police and soldiers. Surrounded by cameras, the Frenchman put his case. What were the Israelis doing defending land that was not theirs? If it was -- as the police claim -- a closed military area, then why were settlers allowed access to it? Did they not realise this was a crime?

"I'm a farmer, and these (Palestinian) people are farmers too. So I am fighting
with them to help them protect their land," Mr Bove told the watching media.
With Mr Arditi caught in the middle of the crowd, the soldiers started elbowing
reporters out of the way, and the shoving began. Minutes later one of the activists was arrested and dragged away. "No violence! No violence!" chanted Mr
Bove and his friends. A group of Palestinians nearby took up chanting but maybe
misheard the French accent as they shouted: "No peace! No peace!"

Bove and seven others were arrested at the 2001 protest. When asked to explain why he had gone to the West Bank, Bove later gave the New Left Review this bizarre reply: The Israelis are "putting in place -- with the support of the World Bank -- a series of neoliberal measures intended to integrate the Middle East into globalized production circuits, through the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labour."

But don't blame Bove for pointing fingers at the World Bank and international capital as the source of the ongoing conflict. Developing a real understanding of the history and politics of the Middle East -- and a feeling response to terrorism -- may well be too much for the man.

After all, he's only a simple farmer.