The slogans have changed. Yesterday, farmers were demonstrating to defend their purchasing power and to awaken the opinion on the fall of the prices of this or that raw material. This week, they wanted to express a new evil that they claim to be a victim of: “agribashing”. At the FNSEA's call, farmers demonstrated on Tuesday 22nd and Wednesday 23rd October in front of the prefectures, who shouted that they were “systematically singled out by society”. they have asked the Head of State to defend them against the ills that affect a sector in crisis of identity and economic. Emmanuel Macron told them Tuesday night from Mayotte stating that he considered “unacceptable” attacks against farmers. “Our country has seized a funny fashion, at least a state of mind that has been to point fingers, even stigmatize our farmers saying they were the enemies of animal welfare, the enemies of good nutrition, launched Emmanuel Macron, even as we have one of the most demanding agriculture.
François Purseigle knows the agricultural population well. It is undoubtedly one of the best specialists of agricultural sociology in France. This researcher teaches at the National Agronomic School of Toulouse and has published numerous studies. He's coming back for Challenges on the unprecedented crisis experienced by this sector and this population which weighs only 3% of the active population.
Challenges – Does the current agricultural crisis have a greater impact on farmers than the previous ones?
François Purseigle – There have always been crises in the agricultural world. The Ministry of Agriculture created in 1836 was founded to face the various hazards that already affected our campaigns at the time. And the agricultural history of the XXth century is sequenced by series of protectionist measures to protect peasants from outside competition to prevent the collapse of revenues.
Farmers in 2019 live in a totally broken, open and ultra competitive world. Twenty or thirty years ago the agricultural population was much more homogeneous. Farmers shared the same project: producing more to feed an ever-growing population. They took an active part in the country's economy, which was much less open to the outside world than it is today.
Where does the current discomfort come from?
Farmers do not really know where they are going, what their place in society is. They are asked to be at the same time entrepreneur, craftsman, to produce more but cleanly, to diversify, all to touch the RSA at the end of the month. The discomfort they experience today is based on their inability to perform economically but also on their inability to transmit their production tool.
Can they still count on a form of family solidarity?
The matrix of the family farm exploded. Spouses work less and less on the farm because the need for a second income becomes indispensable. The children do not want to take over the exploitation. The farmer is quickly isolated from his problems.
This is one of the reasons that drives the tragedy of suicide and makes this profession the most affected by this scourge.
The latest available surveys, notably from the MSA (Agricultural Social Security, Ed), confirm that farmers are the social category most affected by suicides, largely ahead of workers and employees. In 2008, the crude male suicide rate among farmers was close to 38% (farmers and farm workers have a higher risk of suicide deaths than the general population of 12% in 2015, according to a study by the MSA, Editor's note). The farmer is jostled in his identity as head of the family and farm manager, two statutes that were intimately linked. Failure on the family farm does not have the same scope as in other economic sectors, in particular because the workplace and life are often the same. They are constantly under the gaze of society and family, under that of their father and peers, who remind them that if they are there it is good because they are the heirs of a dynasty. They must therefore bear a very heavy mental burden: to avoid at all costs being the one by whom agricultural family history ends.
This is illustrated by the film In the name of the Earth, currently showing …
Formerly in the face of the crisis, family financial arrangements made it possible to cope with it, just like professional solidarity. Today, farmers are not immune to the metropolisation of their families who are taking their distance with agricultural realities. The family has sometimes even killed the family farm by wanting to maintain it at all costs in the name of defending the personal heritage but without accepting the economic reality that goes with it.
Farmers also suffer from agribashing. Did their image deteriorate so dramatically?
We are witnessing a reversal of the rural exodus: it is no longer farming families that land in the villages. This changes the situation considerably locally. Rural spaces are no longer regarded as places of production but as places of living space, recreation and recreational vacations. Urban and rural spaces intersect much more today than yesterday with all the difficulties that this poses, as illustrated by the recent debate on areas of non-treatment of inputs.
We are witnessing a shock of images and representations and the confrontation of two worlds. The local political staff also evolves with the arrival of these neo rural: they are aware that we must address another “client” election. But farmers are not immune to a global movement that is pointing the finger at many corporations: teachers to doctors through journalists and politicians … Never again the profession of farmer will be watched as before.
In this context of acute crisis, do you consider that farmers defend themselves well? Do they use the right tools?
Some people are starting to use social networks, but the vast majority are struggling to get rid of a mode of protest used by an ultra-majority professional group at the time. They are still at different types of blockades or street demonstrations, in front of the prefectures. However, they will have to innovate in their communication to make themselves heard better. They are still convinced of being a strong social force. In fact, they weigh only 3% of the active population but 10% of the active population retains an important agricultural attribute (retirees, agribusiness employees, agricultural organizations …). It will take time for them to adopt new reflexes, especially those of a minority. It is not easy to accept it when you have been for decades the darlings of the Republic who entrusted you with the management of so many municipalities.