Today we welcome a guest post from Venus Bivar, author of Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France.
France is often held up as a bastion of gastronomic refinement and as a model of artisanal agriculture and husbandry. But French farming is not at all what it seems. Countering the standard stories of gastronomy, tourism, and leisure associated with the French countryside, Venus Bivar portrays French farmers as hard-nosed businessmen preoccupied with global trade and mass production. With a twin focus on both the rise of big agriculture and the organic movement, Bivar examines the tumult of postwar rural France, a place fiercely engaged with crucial national and global developments.
Organic Resistance is now available in both print and ebook editions.
Romanticising the French Countryside
In 1984, Pierre Nora published the first volume of his Les lieux de mémoire [Sites of Memory], the first step in the creation of a compendium of sites and events that were central to French collective memory and identity. Nora was trying to overcome what he perceived to be the loss of identity and living memory that industrial modernity had occasioned. The catalogue of sites included buildings like the Pantheon and the cathedral at Reims, books like the Larousse encyclopedic dictionary and the standard textbook for French primary education. It also included an entry on the land (la terre).
While Nora’s intent was directed at the resuscitation and reanimation of history, the treatment of rural France in his anthology was marked as much by mystical longing as it was by critical reflection. In this sense, it was entirely in keeping with the broader nostalgia for rural life that had begun to invade urban France in the 1970s. In his entry, geographer Armand Frémont freely drew on romantic notions about the French countryside: “The land is not only the most expansive and ubiquitous of our lieux de mémoire [sites of memory]. It is also the most profound. The land embodies all of the values of a peasant civilization whose roots plunge millions of years deep and continue to survive beneath the contemporary landscape…. France distinguishes itself from the other great peasant civilizations in that it attributes to the land more wealth and more virtue than is attributed to it elsewhere in Europe, or even the rest of the world.”
Drawing on the nostalgia that followed in the wake of postwar economic modernization, Frémont presented the rural landscape as an aspect of French identity that was on the verge of being lost, that resided firmly in the past. It was not presented as a living, dynamic, or productive entity. Purposefully pushing the actual practice of modern agriculture aside, relegating its existence to the margins in order to maintain the poetry of the landscape, Frémont perpetuated the idyllic image of the French countryside as a static realm that both existed outside of time and recorded its passing. Frémont’s interpretation of the landscape and of the civilization that it represented was emblematic of the general longing for rural life that developed in urban France over the course of the 1970s and 80s.
Describing the urban men and women who visited rural France to escape from the industrial modernity of the city, Frémont wrote: “Perhaps never before has the land fascinated so much all those who no longer live on it and yet who continue to want to see themselves in it…. As a place of leisure and recreation for families to enjoy during the radiance of summer or during the pleasure of the weekend, the land has become more than ever a site of memory.” For the children of the rural exodus, living in the urban centers of France, and no longer interacting with their natural surroundings in a meaningful way, the land had become an abstraction, a series of untethered associations that could be consumed on the marketplace: through regional foods, second homes, and rural tourism. The land was no longer a productive force, but rather a receptacle of desire. Organic agriculture and terroir allowed urban consumers literally to consume – in the Freudian sense of cannibalization – the French landscape.
Echoes of Frémont’s ecstatic portrayal of the French countryside can be found in more recent literature on rural France. There seems to be a pervading desire, among both the French and Americans, to imagine rural France as the guardian of superior food culture and agricultural practice. Books and movies about Provence continue to find ready audiences while we persist in believing that French gastronomy and fine wine cannot be beat. In short, more often than not, French food, and the rural landscape that gives it shape, are held up as antidotes to an American food system that is decried as an industrial machine, an environmental nuissance, and a threat to public health.
But we would do well to question these assumptions. For rural France is as much about toxic agricultural chemicals and combine threshers as it is about lavender and grazing sheep. The land that Frémont so rapturously described is home to one of the world’s most productive agricultural sectors, a sector that prizes output and profit above all else. Rather than falsely imagining, as did Frémont, that the French landscape is a bastion of old-world pre-capitalist values, we should see the French system for what it really is: the inconsistent product of competing desires to produce cheap abundant food and to create a connection to a largely abandoned natural world.
 Armand Frémont, “La terre,” in Les lieux de mémoire, vol. 3, La France, ed. Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), 54.
Venus Bivar is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. You can read her earlier post here.