Recently I had the opportunity to talk to some French agriculture and food policy advisers. This was very informative in the sense of understanding where we differ. The French stance on these matters is a product of their own values which in turn reflect their historical development. One has to understand their stance, even if one does not agree with it.
One topic was the new French law on the 'modernisation' of agriculture which I understand has reached the Senate. I think our understanding of modernisation is somewhat different from the French one. There appear to be three broad objectives: creating a public policy for food; stabilising and re-regulating the agricultural market; and ensuring food security.
Apparently, there is a view in France that there is need to combat new food behaviours. From an English perspective, I would say that this was no concern of the Government, but again this reflects the difference between a liberal and an étatiste tradition.
France was once the country of the one hour lunch: indeed it was not unknown for some lunches to extend more than hour and be washed down with more than a glass of 'vin ordinaire'. However, the view is that France has moved away from having a fixed eating time and young people are turning to fast food. This is thought to be not good for public health, but above all it is believed that restoring traditional behaviour would open the market for agricultural products.
France would also like to strengthen corporatist associations of producers, but admits this would require competition law changes at EU level. A somewhat more sensible idea is to seek longer-term contracts between farmers and the hypermarkets.
However, some of the goals sound a little strange to English ears. Preserving the food heritage is one. Now, whilst I do not share the English middle class love affair with France, I would admit there is something special about a Parisian café. But does this require government intervention?
The policy also seeks to rely on educated citizens, that is educated about food and that objective would certainly resonate with many in England. However, the notion of keeping competitive enterprises on all parts of the territory is a less comfortable one, even if one admits that many parts of France are thinly populated and at risk of depopulation. (Whether depopulation is necessarily a bad thing is itself an interesting question).
A British participant in our discussions argued that the structure of dirigisme facilitated collusion and was essentially anti-competitive. Were the objectives coherent and did they try to cut across the expressed preferences of the French people? The attempt to stabilise might be an attempt to immoblise.
Not surprisingly, this was seen as a rather polemical point on the French side. They explained, that their policy was not economically rational, but was a [normative] choice. The production of food had a very strong public good component and belonged to public policy. However, it was admitted that French consumers had a very limited role in food policy formation.
More from our discussions at a later date.