BREAD: French priorities win again, and the Germans are left gnashing their teeth.

France’s uncanny knack of choosing a winner irritates the crap out of everyone

I spend half the year living in a rural area of southern France. I like the people here: they’re not metropolitan when it comes to conversation, but by and large they’re crime free and generous. When they have too many tomatoes, they say I should help myself to the glut. And when my quinces are ready, I say the same to them. There are about 37,000 more things you can do with a tomato than a quince, so I can’t help feeling I do very well out of this system.

But most French farmers are descended from the same canny peasants who chucked out the Bourbons 225 years ago, and we’re not talking biscuits here. Frenchmen know a gift horse when they see one. Fifty years ago, they spotted the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – it goes with EU membership – and bought into it sight unseen. As long as you listen to what the Paris planners say about what to plant next year, the CAP is a licence to print gold-backed money for every farmer.

Usually in our area here, the mix of crops is sunflowers, maize and soy. But this year – all of a sudden – it’s wheat dominated. The Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA –  France’s elite school for training high-ranking civil servants – has decreed that more wheat will be grown. The CAP in turn decrees that all the crop will be bought at a profit for the farmers. But as this will produce an enormous glut, the retail price of bread will be at worst static – come what may.

The price of bread is an emotive subject in France. Ever since the sans culottes French were advised to eat cake by Louis XVI’s hated Austrian wife in 1787, the price of bread has been a central factor in the judgement of governmental success or failure: had he been born French, Bill Clinton’s sign would’ve read, “It’s the bread, stoopid”. So the ENA folks telling the farmers to plant wheat is an important economic sign for eurozoners.

France is by far the eurozone member State most able to self-subsist: with a huge cultivable land area, high levels of mechanisation, and a relatively low population density, things could go from bad to way beyond worse, and the French Government would still be able to feed its population. But this year, the ever-smart ENA Sorbonniers have had a lucky bounce, because the US wheat crop is not in great shape.

Sometimes, what the reporter sees around him is the starting point for a proper investigation: everywhere I look, there has been wheat. In the past few weeks, Parisian sourced wheat grain has risen 12% in value. The French harvest traded at a premium of $2.44 a metric ton to the U.S. today (Tuesday) and its price has been at consistently record levels…thanks largely to the US drought.

France will reap a whopping 35.2 million tons of wheat this season. Even if the eurozone fails, the EU cap policy will remain in place. Germany is not so well-placed when it comes to agriculture. And its factory orders were down 1.7% in June (versus +0.7% in May) while  eurozone industrial orders were adrift by a frigthening 4.9%. With their new best friends Italy and Spain ganging up on Merkel, the French are in a strong position to suffer less than most from eurozone meltdown.

This will only further fuel German resentment. The EU North/South (aka Germany/France) rift is now firmly and irrevocably in place. Whatever Germany decides to do now, 57 years of rapprochement between the old enemies are at an end. I doubt very much if this reality figures highly on Hillary Clinton’s radar. And that lack of awareness isn’t being helped by the ominous silence from Berlin.

 

42 thoughts on “BREAD: French priorities win again, and the Germans are left gnashing their teeth.

  1. I have been extremely worried about the US drought – and wondered if it would be compounded by storms at harvest time. That could strike France as well of course as we get many of our anti-cyclones second-hand from across the Atlantic.

    One point of note: Germany’s bread will last a week where the French stuff lasts a day. Mind you, when it is fresh, the French stuff is yummy.

      • Maxi

        It is not an issue of preservatives. French wheat – or at least the stuff they use for their bread – makes bread that goes hard very quickly. Not for nothing do you see the Frenchman buying bread each morning: it would be hard by the next.

        The fact is that whilst it is fresh, it is the nicest bread on the planet.

      • Years ago I lived in Algeria. My apartment was above a bakery.
        The baker baked baguettes three time a day – early morning, noon and afternoon. You would not eat the mornings bake in the afternoon – it was already hard.
        There was always a massive crowd outside the bakery just before the doors opened – three times a day.
        The price of bread was subsidised by the government. You could not even count the price of one baguette in cents – more like three for one cent.

      • Trinquet

        Please read the comment with the care with which it was written. I happen to share JW’s annoyance at people who do not take the trouble to get their ducks in a row.

    • Gemma: I agree that the run-of-the-mill (sorry!) albeit delicious 400gr ‘pain’ or 250gr baquette or 500gr couronne do only last the day (but make excellent toast for breakfast next day).

      I have to ask, where are you in France? Having lived here for best part of 20 years, I can tell you that there are many types of bread sold which are specifically made so’s to be able to be kept. I’m referring to many types of ‘pain de campagne’ or ‘pain au levain’ – breads such as Larzac, Perene, and others such as rye (siegle) bread, some of which are similar to German breads.

      • Bon C

        I was thinking more of the ordinary French stick. My point was that the flour used for these breads is the “problem” – that they are the reason for them being tasty is why the tradition continues.

        I was aware of the French rye breads, which again are subtly different from the German ones. I do make my own rye breads, and the quality of the flour is very important if you want a good flavour – only in my case they would of course be Dutch. Not so far from France, only a few hours.

  2. Wheat takes a while to grow so I doubt that any central orders pre-dated the US weather. And round my way it’s pretty cyclic, maize, wheat and sunflowers. Haven’t seen more wheat than usual.

  3. I am equally worried about the lack of plums, damsons and sloes this year- there aren’t any in my neck of the woods- in fact all nuts and chestnuts , acorns etc are scarily scarce- how will our bird and animal life cope if we have this coming predicted harsh winter?

    The US drought is a shocker- I heard that Iraq grew a vast amount of grain- is this still so? i

    • Nothing around here either. You should buy in food for them now ready for the winter. We use something like 80kg per winter.

      Luckily, there is an upside, last year was good for sloes, so we’ve plenty of sloe gin to last us through this winter too :o)

  4. You really should stop pronouncing on things you nothing about. Subsidy payments under the CAP are now ‘decoupled’ ie are not related to production, and have been since 2003. It makes no difference if a farmer grows wheat, maize or any crop he cares for, his subsidy payment is the same. If he grows nothing at all, he even still gets the same payment, as long as he keeps the land in good agricultural condition. The price received per tonne is the world market price, not a fixed price set by the State.

    The reason more wheat has been grown is not that some edict has gone out from Paris, but that the world price of wheat has risen quite considerably over the last few years and is thus more profitable than other crops. Thats why farmers have made the entirely independent and understandable decisions to grow more of it.

    I’m beginning to wonder if your lack of knowledge in this post is repeated in all your other ones.

    • There’s certainly a lot of rubbish on this site whenever the subject of derivatives comes up, particularly from Teutonophiliacs.

      • Seb

        no wonder you were named after a breakfast cereal – how many people have mentioned derivatives in this comment section? I will give you three guesses … zero, nought or none.

        Goodness! your inability to understand the written language is as astonishing as your inability to make a comprehensible statement.

      • @Gemz: oh dear, your tiny literal mind strikes again… I shall explain for the hard of thinking. I was commenting in relation to Jim’s last point, ie lack of knowledge being demonstrated in other posts. Not knowing anything about wheat farming I kept my mouth shut on that subject. Perhaps you should do the same?

        You are of course the cretinous Teutonophiliac I had most in mind when making my little comment. Toodle pip.

    • Jim
      Rising above the the smartarsed bollocks and missing verbs,
      1. Let me explain how local cooperatives work, and how that foot is attached to the Sorbonnier brain.
      CAP rewriting or not, no coop-dependent farmer in his right mind will plant until he and the coop have spoken with the prefecture and the min of ag & fish (MAF or these days MAPRA). So CAP was changed in 2003? Hahahahaha: the carte sejour was phased out 20 years ago…and is still with us.
      2. If anything, MAF is more actively controlling than it was, under its remit of ‘agricultural education and the economic development of all agricultural sectors’. Six years ago, an intranet was installed across France at great expense – a farming equivalent of Connecting for Health, except that it works. The Coop can overrule, and many farmers have their own (livestock feed) priorities anyway; but believe me, this year more farmers have been tipped the wink: grow wheat.
      As the piece specifically said, ‘As long as you listen to what the Paris planners say about what to plant next year’.
      3. ‘The price received per tonne is the world market price, not a fixed price set by the State.’ In theory, technically yes. But the farmer’s main concern in real life is to grow without anxiety…the majority now cannot remember a time before CAP. Every year, they will ask for the ‘prevision’ – the MAF view on what will fly best. This year they have been told wheat.
      4. This has happened for 2 reasons. One, because the ENAnites are bright and commercially aware, unlike our lot; and two, because the French civil service on a pilitical dimension doesn’t give a f**k about the world price of wheat…because it isn’t going to export it, it’s going to subsidise the retail price of it.
      It’s a tricky business when somebody who knows nothing explains to somebody who knows nothing why he does know something. It’s also time consuming. But if you’re still wondering how well-researched my pieces are, then wonder away, chum.

      • You stated ‘The CAP in turn decrees that all the crop will be bought at a profit for the farmers’.

        It does not. As I have pointed out agricultural subsidies are NOT tied to production. If the world price of wheat drops through the floor between planting this autumn, and harvest next summer, the farmers who followed the advice (advice, not a decree mind you) to plant it will not make any money. They might even lose some. The price of wheat is NOT guaranteed for French farmers any more than it is for English or German ones. I don’t know why you think independently minded French farmers would mindlessly follow the advice of Paris to plant more of it – more wheat has been planted here in the UK too, but its not down to DEFRA telling anyone to, its down to individual businesses deciding what is the most profitable crop. The same goes for French farmers too.

        And before you criticise someone else’s typing, perhaps you should check yours a bit more carefully first – ‘pilitical’ indeed.

      • Jim
        As you haven’t answered one of my points (but instead continued to drivel on about world wholesale prices rather than French retail) I will now close this exchange by taking up one of yr ‘points':
        ‘The price of wheat is NOT guaranteed for French farmers any more than it is for English or German ones.’
        Rubbish. The CROP has a guaranteed buyer in the end one way or another…or the autoroutes get blocked.
        Last year, the French State gave fully 1.9 billion euros to farmers who had lost bets on ENA recommendations.
        Of course it doesn’t say that in the rulebook: it wouldn’t, would it?
        How long have you lived in France? How much have you learned? How many farmers do you know?
        I would say au revoir, but believe me, this is adieu.

  5. So you think there are no drug cheats in the Olympics?Well, what about China supplying a undetectable substance to Taouflik Makhousti,of Algeria ,who has just won the 1500 metres? The Olympic games are a joke.

  6. ‘The Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA – France’s elite school for training high-ranking civil servants’ ……and I thought it was all down to those Sorbonniers.

    • Robert
      They tend to be interchangeable terms, but in my experience ordinary folk just call them all ‘les fonctionnaires’ and then spit.

  7. Not trolling, just seeking some clarification.

    The 35.2 million figure, is this imperial tons, US tons or metric tonnes.
    This does make a difference when trying to convert the production into tradeable bushels.

      • Kev: He’s trolling because he’s asking if there’s any difference between imperial tons and metric tonnes.?

        Er…ok……..Cap’n!

    • Captain Yo.

      Tell me: given that these figures are estimates, does it matter which tons they are in? Even the final figure will be a ball-park figure as the data will be very hard to gather accurately – and the most accurate of them will be with a tolerance of 10,000t.

      Just as an aside here: would you know the difference if you saw an Imperial or US or metric ton? I doubt quite honestly that you would.

  8. We will always need bread, but we can manage without BMW’s. The French instinct for self interest – and milking the CAP is a classic instance – is derided by many, but how I wish our Oxford PPE-trained political priesthood had a fraction of their nous, or patriotism.

    • Ace
      This is so on the money, and really what the piece was trying to say: the Germans may look and sound more organised, but the French are more cunning.

      • As you say John, if push comes to shove, France can feed her population, with the exception of certain exotic fruits such as bananas, but I guess the DOM/TOM’s would supply. But what the heck, I can do without those.

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  10. Good piece, John. May I add an observation on the bedrock of the French political system? M; le maire of many of the 36000 French communes will be of farming stock. He will convey in pretty brutal terms to the Enarchs (I have never heard the term ‘Sorbonniers’) if his electors have not had the best available advice. He may go on to a political career and perpetuate the positive feedback. The system is very well oiled. Oh, here in 04, we have had a bumper crop of beautiful lavendin and the harvest of wheat (irrigated with ‘free’ water) is of the best.

  11. I envy you your 6 months John. I have been fantasising about a small holding in the Languedoc for too too many years. Meanwhile I watch my pension value drop and drop and the house market stagnate until stagnate doesn’t actually describe it anymore more like ossify. I watch the EU make the same mistakes all communist parties make and wonder what post EU France will be like. I wonder will they hate the ‘ros biffs’ for not joining their lemming express to perdition? Or will they say well they nearly escaped but didn’t.
    ……..and I wonder will I ever manage that dream?
    If I am going to have this pointless existance and be aware of it, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts -is my philosophy.

  12. What on earth makes you think it was the peasants who chucked out the Bourbons? It was provincial lawyers plus the Paris mob. A lot of peasants were slaughtered for their support of the Bourbons and the Roman Catholic Church.

    • Dearieme but you do have me there: you are correct of course. I meant to convey that they overturned the regime, but the Bourbon word made for a better gag.
      But you’d be wrong to suggest that peasants didn’t see off les aristocrats: in my petit coin de France, every single chateau was sacked, and every last pompadour got it in the neck, so to speak. (Hence the need for all those ghastly 19th century new-money turrets in the Loire).

  13. Pingback: John Ward – Bread : French Priorities Win Again, And The Germans Are Left Gnashing Their Teeth – 8 August 2012 | Lucas 2012 Infos

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