Why We ‘Ransacked’ McDonald’s

Book excerpt: The World Is Not For Sale


In 1999, Europe refused to open its markets to hormone–laced US beef. In retaliation, the US slapped trade tariffs on a number of European exports, including Roquefort cheese. French dairy farmers were outraged. On August 12, 1999, a group of farmers led by José Bové decided to vent their indignation on a McDonald’s restaurant under construction in the town of Millau. The following account is from Bové’s new book, The World Is Not for Sale. The objective was to have a nonviolent but symbolically forceful action, in broad daylight and with the largest possible participation. We explained to the police in advance that the purpose of the rally was to dismantle the McDonald’s. The police deemed it unnecessary to mount a large presence.

The demo took place and people, including kids, began taking down partitions, some doors, fuse boxes and some tiles from the roof. They were just nailed down and came off very easily. The structure was very flimsy. While some people started to repaint the roof of the restaurant, others began loading bits of the structure on to tractor trailers.

Children clambered on the grain wagon and used sticks to bang the sides while the whole lot proceeded in the direction of the seat of the regional government. We unloaded everything in front of the prefecture. It was a beautiful day; everyone was having a good time.

When I got home that evening, I was quite unprepared for the way in which the media began to report the protests. Agence France Presse, for instance, said that the McDonald’s had been “ransacked.“ I was shocked that we were being treated as criminals.

Naturally, I decided to turn myself in, but not before alerting the media, so that I could explain that we were not criminals. I had to be very careful, as I was on the wanted list and my mobile phone was being tapped. So, avoiding the main roads, I went to a farm with only one access lane. I even hid in a crate in the back of a van until we got there.

Life in Prison

All prisoners watch television. Six channels were available–at 200 francs a month. A detained man spends 21 hours a day in his cell. This gives him ample time to surf all the channels. Prisoners are cut off from society but even they understood what it was we were struggling against. The prison guards would also come and chat with me. My presence aroused sympathy, because they knew I was inside for a trade–union offense.

The prison held 700 inmates. Little by little, I got to talk with everybody, even the “hard guys“ who’d been inside for a long time. The prisoner who’d notched up the most sentences had spent 25 years in prison. He was the most political of all, a real social rebel. He was proud of never having done a day’s work in prison and considered me a comrade-in-struggle.

Apart from the guards, who are state employees, everything else is in the hands of the private sector. You have to pay for television, laundry, essential toiletries and even meals if you want to eat properly. For those who are poor, there’s the “slop“–without salt, lukewarm, and so inedible it often gets chucked out of the window. For the well-off, there are ready-prepared dishes made with fresh produce: duck breast, spring chicken, steak entrecôte. Some days you could buy cakes and gâteaux; brioches, croissants, pains au chocolat, tartlets and éclairs.

The same outlets (often one of the big food chains) sell both the revolting stuff and the deluxe meals. McDonald’s reportedly offered to finance some repairs in the prisons in exchange for being allowed to supply food to the inmates.

Farmers, workers, trade unionists, organizations–everyone supported the goat’s milk producers. From my cell, I watched the snowball effect spreading over the whole country. The political parties attempted to fall into line behind public opinion.

Without any prompting, hundreds of checks started to arrive from far and wide, indicating the breadth of our support. I read in Le Monde that checks to “free the French farmer” were coming from American farmers and consumers. Malbouffe: The Birth of a Word The word “malbouffe” implies eating any old thing, prepared in any old way. The first time I used the word malbouffe was on 12 August, in front of the McDonald’s in Millau. The word just clicked.

For me, the term means both the standardization of food like McDonald’s–the same taste from one end of the world to the other–and the choice of food associated with the use of hormones and GMOs, as well as the residues of pesticides and other things that can endanger health.

The food is completely uniform; the hamburgers have the same shape and content all over the world. In fact, it’s “food from nowhere.”

The meat they serve is made up of bits from the cheapest parts of the cow. All the burgers have the same make–up: fat is added so that the proportion of fat to lean meat is identical in every branch, ensuring that it can be cooked in the same way and have the same texture. Taste doesn’t come into it: that’s the reason for all the pickles and sauces.

The food product is rarely eaten in anything like the state it leaves the farm. Soon the art of cooking and eating together will not be passed on to new generations; this has resulted in a loss of family cohesion, and of the ties that bind us to the land or place where we live.

Industrializing Agriculture

The fundamental idea which underpinned the modernization of agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s, is the same that applied in industry: intensification and specialization of output, rationalization and segmentation of work, standardization of product.

In the space of a few years, we’ve moved to monoculture in entire regions. In Brittany, until the 1950s, a farm would produce milk and either pork or poultry; today it has a single specialized output. Dairy farmers are no longer all–round farmers; they’re specialists in milk production, with little interest in crops and even less in soil use. This specialization has put an end to local production of different crops and animals, which are adapted to the climate, soil and topography of the area.

In poultry rearing, for example, one farm specializes in the production of one-day-old chicks, another in larger chicks and yet another in laying hens. Between each link in this agricultural chain, an intermediary buys or sells the products. It may not be the conveyor belt, but it has a lot in common with it.

The size of a plot of land has been adapted to the machine, often to the detriment of the natural topography and the needs of proper drainage. Hedges that hindered the movement of machines and competed with crops were uprooted, and slopes were flattened. All this reshaping has resulted in a loss of biomass, promoted soil erosion, reduced the humus layer and significantly decreased the flora and fauna.

No to GMOs

We’re opposed to genetic modification in agriculture. Depending on the “improvement“ being sought, you can find the genes of a strain of cholera bacteria in alfalfa, a chicken gene in potatoes, scorpion genes in cotton, fish in tomatoes and strawberries, firefly in fish, trout in carp, hamster in tobacco, tobacco in lettuce, and human genes in rice, tomatoes, potatoes and ewes.

The genetic manipulation of a plant or an animal enables companies, by enforcing industrial patents, to become owners of all the modified plants and animals subsequently produced. By buying up rival seeds and patents, or removing competitors from the market, a firm can become the owner of an entire species. It’s the logic of industry, applied to life. Genetic manipulation is a way of being paid royalties for life itself.

We don’t need GMOs to do our job. In agriculture their sole function is to deal badly and dangerously with the problems caused by intensive farming, especially by monoculture.

Genetic modification is a technique of tyranny, and patenting is its main tool. When the main US seed suppliers started work on maize, they created hybrid plants incapable of producing reliable seed, and in this way they guaranteed that farmers would have to go back to them every year for fresh seed supplies. That was the first stage of industrialized production.

The agrochemical industry invested enormous amounts to control both the sowing and the chemical treatment of crops. The five or six world chemical giants bought up the seed producers and put into practice a program of genetic modification. Protected by its patent, each genetically modified seed belongs to its “inventor,“ who can take legal action against any farmer who resows it.

This led to the development of self–destructive seeds using a so–called “terminator“ gene that stops the grain from germinating once it reaches maturity. It makes perfect commercial sense, ensuring a 100 percent return on investment.

These practices violate the age–old and universally recognized right of taking grain from one year’s harvest to plant the next year, which is crucial to the survival of farming communities. Today, however, the big seed producers have abandoned this right in favor of a patent, which is much more lucrative. The abuse of patents has meant that farmers are forced to pay a fee for the use of their own seeds.

In Asia, 140,000 varieties of rice–wild, long–grain, short–grain–are grown for their particular properties: height; the ability to thrive in different humidities; taste and texture. There are even medicinal varieties. A true rice civilization!

The multinationals are working on only five or six strains of rice, genetically modifying them for a type of intensive cultivation in areas where subsistence farming previously held sway. In some Asian countries, these five varieties now cover 60 to 70 percent of the land planted with rice. We’re witnessing the complete annihilation of a self–sustaining farming culture.

We don’t believe the farmer’s job can be reduced to marketing. Farmers work with what’s alive and on the land. They provide employment, help to conserve biodiversity and preserve and maintain the countryside. Vampire Economies There are two different views of society: one where the market runs everything and where all human activity (health, education, culture and so on) takes place with capital as the bottom line; the other where people and their political institutions–not to mention issues such as the environment and culture–are at the forefront. As far as world leaders are concerned, the entire planet should submit to market laws. Our struggle is based on resistance to this development.

It’s a worldwide dictatorship; if you’re not in the market sphere, you’re a nobody. We no longer live under conditions of traditional management and interstate conflicts, but in the middle of a war between private powers, with the market as the battleground. Look how the traffic in money makes more profit than traditional production and trading activities combined. Today, money works by itself. This has produced a new species of parasite: vampires thirsty for money. Money addicts.

In the world today, 27 million farmers work with a tractor, 250 million use animals, and a billion work with their hands–the latter almost exclusively women. So when we’re considering the development of agriculture, the first issue is to determine how all these people can continue their work in a way that is satisfactory to them.

The multinationals take decisions with complete disregard for nation–states, displaying contempt for the political system. That requires new responses, new forms of militancy. This is what happened in Seattle, Millau, Prague and elsewhere. The preconceived model of how to change the world has been replaced by a new form of collective action, and new organizational structures are emerging.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has arrogated the functions of legislature, executive and judiciary solely for itself. In the 18th century, such an anti–democratic concentration of power provoked the French Revolution!

To break this monopoly of power, we have demanded an international court of justice, composed of professional lawyers, independent of the WTO, whose rules are based on the Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions agreed by the UN. This court could hear appeals by countries dissatisfied with WTO decisions.

The WTO isn’t going to change overnight. We’re in for a long struggle. Building on the international gains won at Seattle, we’re working towards setting up a permanent watchdog in Geneva, seat of the WTO. This center will provide information for all those mobilizing on the issue of world trade.

The regulation of international trade is a good thing, so long as it’s based on equality of rights, not on the dominance of the economically strong. As our banner in the streets of Seattle proclaimed, we are in favor of the WTO adopting the Human Rights Charter. Why should the global market escape the rule of international law or human rights conventions passed by the United Nations?


On September 13, 2000, Bové was sentenced to serve three months in prison. Three other protestors, Jean–Émile Sanchez, Richard Maille and Frédéric Libot received a two-month suspended sentence; Jean-Paul Delaitte, Christian Roqueirol, Raymond Fabrégues, Léon Maillé and Alain Soulié received fines.

Adapted from The World Is Not For Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food by José Bové and François Dufour. Interviewed by Gilles Luneau and translated by Anna de Casparis. (c) Verso 2001 [1809 Varick St., New York, NY 10014–4606; 6 Meard St., London W1F 0EG, England].

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