Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto

Fellowship Title:

The End of European Peasantry

Alma Guillermoprieto
February 10, 1986

Fellowship Year

The radical transformation of the European countryside was one of the first and most ambitious goals the European Economic Community set for itself at its creation in 1958. Sifting through the economic and political wreckage of the post-war era the architects of the Community, or Common Market, gave agricultural self-sufficiency overwhelming priority in their plans for a united, war-free Europe.

Today, almost twenty-five years after the creation of the Community’s Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, European planners acknowledge that the CAP’s very success has made it obsolete. Stability and even modest prosperity are now the norm in much of rural Europe. Food supplies are plentiful and guaranteed. With the help of a giant array of machinery, farm work has become far less onerous.

But no victory comes without a price. Europe has paid it in the disappearance of the Western world’s oldest surviving social class–the paysannerie–and the consequent emptying of its countryside. In France alone, the CAP era has seen a decline in the rural population of more than one million. The countryside, that traditional greenhouse of family values, now has the largest percentage of unmarried middle-aged men of any social group in France. Countries as disparate as Germany, Italy and Spain report similar strata of desperate rural bachelors.

In the course of their own adult lives, Europe’s rural inhabitants have seen the loss of a way of life that sustained them for centuries. For the winners in this process, there is little to mourn in the change; today’s prosperous farmers live far easier lives, and their children face more generous futures. But for the losers–hundreds of thousands of paysans in Europe’s less-developed regions–the pace of change has been brutal and alienating. They face a future full of economic uncertainty, and they carry with them a past they perceive as useless against tomorrow’s threats.

I spent much of 1985 traveling through the rural areas of Spain, Scotland and France, talking to farmers and paysans about the effects of the CAP on their lives. In Madrid, Edinburgh, Brussels, and Paris, I asked the architects of Europe’s rural modernization programs how they saw the human consequences of the CAP’s programs. Most of the officials I spoke to seemed to have difficulty focusing on this aspect of the CAP, and quickly led the discussion back to productivity figures and export quotas.

But Edgar Pisani had given the matter some thought. As France’s agriculture minister in 1961 he designed the laws that made the country the world’s second agricultural exporter after the United States. The “Pisani Law” then became the model for many of the CAP’s own programs of land consolidation, early retirement for aging farmers and selective credits for productive ones.

“We had to favor the development of French agriculture without delivering it in all its frailty to the international competition of the Common Market,” Pisani said about what some have described as the “shock treatment” applied to rural France in the early 1960’s. “In retrospect, three interesting things stand out: the first is that only those who had already begun moving on their own could cope with the movement that change brought. The second is that those who were in the vanguard of adapting to the change were eventually those who suffered most (from high interest rates and falling food prices). And the third is that those who were not in a condition to keep pace with the changes not only lagged behind but disappeared.”

On balance, Pisani agrees that both French and European agriculture are better off with the CAP than they would have been without it, but this is very faint praise from a man who is intimately associated in most European minds with the very concept of a “Green Europe.” His harshest words these days are for the “economist” policies he attributes to his successors. By placing such a great premium on efficiency and productivity and taking so little account of the environment of the paysan, he says, the CAP generated the rural exodus of the second third of the century. “The technocrats in Brussels believe that sociological measures should only exist as correctors. One consequence is that this continent, which is so small, is in the process of becoming empty of people.”

The other main participant in the redesign of French agricultural policy, the man who has been called “Europe’s most influential paysan,” is not nearly so dissatisfied with the long-term effects of the Pisani Law and the CAP. During the 1950’s Michel Debatisse was the leader of a breakaway peasant youth organization, the Centre National des Jeunes Agriculteurs, whose sometimes violent protests and demands helped formulate and win public support for the Pisani Law.

Born a peasant in the rugged mountains of the Auvergne, he sniffs at the notion that the Law and later the CAP forced the paysannerie off the land. “Forced them?” he exclaimed in Strasbourg, where he is now a member of the European Parliament. “They were already leaving in droves! Anybody with any sense left the land in those days. Look at me: I dropped out of school when I was 14 and went to work in factory. I couldn’t stay with my parents any more. There was no money.”

Debatisse is the embodiment of an era. The youngest son of parents who worked about 37.5 acres of land nearly half a mile above sea level, he remembers a childhood of constant labor and an endless diet of cabbage, potatoes and lard. “On Sundays, as ‘meat’ we had a small sausage. And rice–that was a great luxury!”

He was 16 when he discovered the Jeunesse Agricole Chretienne (JAC), which he describes as “a few priests, and even some nuns, who had decided to teach young people how to find their own solutions. This was after the war. There was a new atmosphere; my brother and I didn’t want to live like our parents. We would bicycle for hours to go to a JAC meeting.”

First his brother and then Michel rose within the JAC ranks. What did the organization give them? “Very simple things. The priests would gather with us and teach us how to discuss things, how to compare, how to make choices. We learned to sing, to tell stories before an audience. It was terribly important in order to create an organization. Later, when I began organizing work, that’s what I taught people: ‘you shouldn’t say “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough to do that.” ’ This was something else the JAC gave us–the sense that as paysans we had a metier, a trade, that was worthwhile and difficult, something to be proud of.”

In those early days, programmatic solutions like the Pisani Law were not even dreamt of. “We didn’t know enough to know what we wanted–just that we couldn’t earn a living off 16 or 17 hectares (40 to 43 acres) of wheat. We biked to other areas to look at other farmers who were doing better, but of course we had no money. We did tiny things, like buying a couple of dozen leghorn hen eggs to see if we could hatch them on the farm. We saved to buy 50 kilos (110 lb.) of ammonium nitrate (fertilizer). That was a huge investment!”

At around the same time, another ex-JACiste, Alexis Gouvernnec, was leading Breton paysans in a much more explosive revolt. The Breton farmers riots of the late fifties and early sixties gave the final push to the French government’s decision to reform its agricultural policy. Largely as a result, Brittany, which until World War II was considered at least as backward at Debatisse’s Auvergne region, is today the most dramatically transformed of all of rural France. It is the country’s largest supplier of milk; an orderly patchwork of large and well-rotated pastures. The Lemarchand family owns one of the squares on this prosperous quilt.

As late as 1965 they were paysans. They grew vegetables and sold them every Saturday at the village market. Their purchases were few: salt, sugar, coffee, chocolate, a few clothing items, work tools and shoes. Their house had tamped-down earthen floors. The beds and the cooking hearth were in the same room.

But in 1966, said Georges Lemarchand proudly, “we entered the age of specialization.” With the subsidies, loans and incentives worked out by the agriculture ministry and Debatisse’s organization, the Lemarchands evolved into dairy farmers. Today the family lives in a new house with sliding glass doors and central heating, and Lemarchand works out productivity increases on a home computer. His wife, Denise, is happy to spend an hour with a visitor examining massive printouts of cost/productivity ratios. The couple’s universe has expanded: “we are Europeans first, French second,” says Lemarchand.

But of course, in Lemarchand and Debatisse we hear the triumphant voices of the survivors: those who, as Pisani says, took the initiative in making the changes. Even if, as Pisani also points out, they are today overwhelmed by rising production costs and high interest rates, they are not the defenseless paysans they were 20 years ago. We do not hear the others, the ones who could not keep afloat when the tide of modernity came sweeping in, because they have largely vanished. They surface in statistics on the unemployment rate, or in the pension rolls, or as the bump in the chart showing, the growth of the French urban working class during the economic expansion of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The question of whether the world is better off on balance in the absence of peasant culture is not academic. The process of modernization that has concluded in the last 25 years in France is continuing in Mediterranean Europe today. In much of the Third World it has barely begun, but it is taking place at a speed which guarantees social and ecological upheaval, not to mention intangible spiritual distress for the participants.

Close to the European Community’s area of concern are Spain and Portugal, which join the Community this year. In these countries large numbers of small growers–”campesinos”–are embarked in the transition to modernity, and for the losers in the process the spiritual price ranges from a vague sensation of worthlessness to a total absence of faith in the future.

Senora Manuela is the sprightly 60-year old grandmother of the Lopez Lopez household in the small farming community of Sanguinedo, in a northwest corner of Spain. Last spring I visited the Lopez Lopez home, mostly curious about how Spain’s entry into the Common Market would affect a small farming family’s economy. But during my stay in the Lopez Lopez modern, comfortable home, which the family is extremely proud of, I also learned a great deal about how much of Senora Manuela’s own past had become alien or worthless to her.

One afternoon as we were watching television, she brought out some sheets which she had embroidered years ago for her trousseau. Beaming from my praise, she hesitated, then pulled me to her bedroom. Pulling off the cover she revealed a dazzling, brilliantly-colored coarse linen blanket. Hand-embroidered, almost Mexican in its daring design, magnificent. “You really do like it?” she asked, blushing and excited. With much pantomime she explained in her native Galician how as a girl she had planted the flax seeds, harvested the plant, soaked the pods to extract the flax, carded and spun the fibers, dyed the yarn and loomed it, blocked and embroidered the blanket, in preparation for her marriage. “All of my sisters did the same,” she said. “But mine was the prettiest! I keep it hidden now because everyone says the things one buys in the store are better.” And she covered the blanket again with the dun-brown, synthetic fiber bedspread her daughter had given her for Christmas.

Value Of Survival


Why should we lament the passing of a historically backward and conservative class whose principal virtue was to endure? Perhaps precisely because the modern world seems to be losing that knowledge, that absolute faith in the primary value of survival, and perhaps because, as the novelist and essayist John Berger points out, the sum of the paysans knowledge is so much greater than its parts.

“They are ignorant of many things, but the range of the knowledge which permits them to survive is huge,” says Berger, who for many years has lived in a small village in the Haute-Savoie region of France, writing about the people he knows there. “They can mend a twisted ankle because they’re not afraid to use their hands. They understand bees, they can solder two metals together and mend a roof. They are the last category of people for whom this is true. When they go, the sum of that knowledge will go too. For good.”

Implicit in all of Berger’s work is the awareness of a greater loss: paysans are the last social category in the modern world to be free of the poison that has been seeping into Senora Manuela’s view of herself; alienation.

One early morning in May I traveled to the Spanish village of Marinaleda, in the gold and olive-green expanses of central Andalucia. I wanted to meet Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, because he had organized several hunger strikes in which many of Marinaleda’s more than 2,500 inhabitants had participated. The strikes were in demand for jobs. Marinaleda’s seasonal 65 percent unemployment rate is higher than the average for Andalucia (40 percent year-round). This is because the village lies in the center of an olive-producing area, and olive-growing has become increasingly mechanized. Now the only time the men in Marinaleda work is during the two-month winter harvest season, picking table olives. Oil olives are mechanically harvested.

Sanchez Gordillo told me that the hunger strikers always “occupy” an hacienda with fallow olive groves–there are many such in Andalucia–and tend the trees as long as the occupation lasts, to demonstrate that the land can be made more productive. I talked to two men in their early thirties who had participated in previous strikes: able-bodied and energetic as they are, they have never known steady work. Like one and a half million other Andalucians, they are landless campesinos suffering the consequences of modernization. They live off the government’s meager unemployment insurance, which they can continue to claim as long as they can secure two months paid labor a year. In their ample spare time they and the villagers have turned Marinaleda into a pristine town. With donated construction materials they have asphalted the main road, built fifty houses, installed a new sewage system and lined every public space with rose bushes. There is nothing left for them to do.

At my request the two men took me to see the hacienda they occupied during their last strike two years ago. The central compound-white stucco walls and red tile roof around a peaceful central courtyard gleamed brightly among the green and yellow fields. “And where are the ‘bestias,’ the oxen and workhorses?” I asked. The men turned to look at me as if I had just landed from Mars. “There are no oxen or workhorses left in Spain,” one of them answered. “They are extinct. Just as we are becoming. Just as we will be any day now.”

©1986 Alma Guillermoprieto

Alma Guillermoprieto, a reporter on leave from The Washington Post, concludes her report on changes in rural life under the policies of the European Economic Community.

Alma Guillermoprieto
Alma Guillermoprieto