French Wine Terrorism

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November 9, 2015 by Andrew W M Smith

What on earth is French Wine Terrorism? That’s a pretty reasonable question, to be honest, and it’s one I’m fairly used to hearing by this stage. The glib answer is that it’s the topic of my upcoming book with Manchester University Press, Terror and terroir: The winegrowers of the Languedoc and modern France (due September 2016).

In recent times, the word terrorism has come to be associated with religion. Yet, in 1992 Police Colonel Weber stated that “there [was] manifestly wine terrorism” at work in the South of France. This fairly shocking statement came in response to a recent round of bombings, carried out in the name of the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, usually shortened to CRAV.[1]

This group wasn’t one that had membership cards, or a head office; it wasn’t one that you’d be pleased to receive a visit from. It was designed as a means of speaking for winegrowers, though as time went on it spoke for an ever smaller section of the South’s traditional producers. Some saw them as the armed wing of the Trade Union movement, others as a means to defend a specifically regional way of life. They certainly did all of these in their turbulent history, touching upon many of the crises of French history during the Fifth Republic.

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The group sprang into existence in 1961, the result of a long period of wine crises that had followed necessary economic reconstruction in the wake of the Liberation of France. The cooperative wineries the government had encouraged to speed recovery ultimately caused the market to overheat. Furthermore competition from imports (and suspicions of fraud) undermined the Midi’s dominance of a shrinking market for basic table wine. Protests drew on the Grand Revolt of 1907,[2] and framed a century long crisis in which the people of the South had been the victims of an unfeeling government. Yet, there was a new wave amongst the winegrowers of 1961.

The men that swelled this new wave were young, and many of them were veterans. Returning from military service in Algeria, a generation of southern winegrowers seemed angered to find the villages they had left beset by new sales crises. They brought with them the experience of the Algerian War, and spoke openly about the methods of the fellagha. Winegrowers had always had recourse to barricades, in a grand old French tradition, though now they began chopping down telephone pole and attacking symbols of the state.[3] Guerrilla action became the preserve of the CRAV, striking out when dialogue had stalled or broken down, to express the fury of those suffering during downturns.

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For some, especially in Britain, this might seem faintly ridiculous and extremely French. Yet, in regions that depended on the fruits of the vine, these protests were a desperate bid to protect their livelihood. Winegrowing was as crucial to the region as shipbuilding had been to Glasgow or Newcastle. Yet, in a countryside dominated by small-holdings and personal indemnity, these extreme methods recognised that the right to strike didn’t exist for winegrowers.

In the 1970s, the winegrowers’ movement increasingly coalesced with that of minority nationalism. The Languedoc was a relic of the 12th century proto-nation of Occitania, largely mapping the lands of the Counts of Toulouse. It was subsumed by the centralizing French state in the Albigensian Crusade, and the language of Occitan was sacrificed at the altar of the nineteenth century Republican project. In the heady days of the 1960s, Occitan activists found fellow travellers amongst those winegrowers keen to stress the importance of the Languedoc’s economic and social individuality as a means of highlighting its cultural distinctiveness.[4] The passionate rhetoric of the winegrowers complemented the romantic nationalism of Occitanism, and these visible protests under the banner of the Occitan cross evoked theatre, poetry and songs that spoke of its resonance.

Difficulties ensued, as the CRAV became bolder on the back of this alliance. The government’s inability to promote palatable alternatives, and the reluctance of winegrowers to accept redundancy, ratcheted up the tension in a series of confrontations that looked more and more like open warfare. This ended tragically, in the death of a winegrower and a policeman. On 4 March 1976, a large confrontation at Montredon (just outside Narbonne), saw a huge crowd of winegrowers armed with hunting rifles confront an armed throng of riot police. Whoever shot first, a gun-fight ensued, and ended in the death of policeman Joël Le-Goff and winegrower Emile Pouytès.

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That appalling human tragedy set the movement back, affecting its ability to speak unchallenged on behalf of ordinary winegrowers. Further misadventures involved the torching of a large supermarket near Carcassonne in 1984, which seemed to lose them whatever institutional support had survived the gun play.[5] After this, the movement seemed to lose its way. The increasing use of masks in protests undermined public sympathy, and the continuing violence crossed the frontiers of acceptability. Increasingly they were perceived as being on the wrong side of history: a rural relic fighting quixotic local battles in a war that was lost a long time ago.

Yet, there is another way to view this movement. We can consider it, warts and all, as a strike back against the logic of the market. Their campaigns have consistently opposed the foundations of contemporary globalisation in favour of the small, the sustainable and the local. Since 1961, their methods tapped into the vernacular of anti-colonial struggles. Through their connections with Occitanism, the CRAV have been involved with anti-globalisation activists, with minority nationalists, and with a wide variety of New Left movements. Their members joined global peasant movements like Via Campesina, and worked alongside figures like Jose Bove and Aime Guibert, opposing the influx of multi-national corporations into France’s rural hinterland. Their failings are many, but their message also presents a type of hope in the ability of local people to live and work the land.

As I have noted in the book: “Between the romantic mythology of terroir, and the misguided, passionate violence of terror, the story of the CRAV offers an important commentary on the development of the nation, the region, and of wine.” French Wine Terrorism, then, is something that is worthy of our consideration. It’s more than some knee-jerk defence of France’s cultural and culinary heritage; instead, it represents a cry of desperation from a group on the periphery of the nation and the economy. This story marked the boundaries of France’s countryside as the state changed in the latter half of the 20th century, defining frontiers of acceptability in the region that helped to define national debates about modernisation, European integration, and globalisation.

You can read much more about this group: about their charismatic and exuberant leaders, about their passionate and evocative rhetoric, and about the extreme nature of their continued attacks in the upcoming Terror and terroir: The winegrowers of the Languedoc and modern France (Manchester University Press, 2016).

 

 

 

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[1] This means ‘Regional Wine Action Committee’. This described a group which operated between different Departments as an umbrella organisation. Usually, when action was confined to individual Departments, people spoke about a Comité d’Action Viticole (CAV) of the Aude, Hérault, or Gard (and so on).

[2] See the article I co-authored with James Hawkey (Bristol), ‘From the soil we have come, to the soil we shall go and from the soil we want to live’: Language, Politics and Identity in the Grande Révolte of 1907, Modern & Contemporary France, 23:3 (2015), 307-326

[3] This too had some roots in Metropolitan tradition, and there are striking similarities to some of the methods described in Noelle Plack’s work on the French Revolution. See especially Plack, Noelle (2012) ‘Liberty, Equality and Taxation: Wine in the French Revolution’, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, 26:1, pp. 5-22

[4] See my chapter called ‘An Uncertain Icon: The Changing Significance of the Croix Occitane in the Midi viticole’, Place and Locality in Modern France, ed. P. Young & P Whalen (London, Bloomsbury, 2014).

[5] For more insight into this process, see my article ‘”Je suis socialiste et quinziste “: Rugby, Wine and Socialism in the Aude since 1976’, National Identities, 16:4 (2014), 291-309.

 

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One thought on “French Wine Terrorism

  1. […] my work, part of my biggest interest in the odd group of militant winegrowers I studied was how far they could go. What would people let them get away with? One interviewee called them […]

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