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Explaining the French attitude toward food

Peter Humi

By Peter Humi
CNN Paris Bureau Chief

December 23, 1999
Web posted at: 10:50 a.m. EST (1550 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

musings at the millennium

PARIS (CNN) -- "L'exception francaise" -- the concept of "the French exception" -- is something that is difficult to explain, but let me try.

The recent World Trade Organization talks in Seattle were big news in France. Not because of the riots that threatened the talks themselves, but because of what was considered here as the very survival of some venerable French institutions, traditions and cultures.

Let's take French food and agricultural industries as an example.

It comes down to protecting a certain way of life, or more precisely, a certain outlook on what is considered important in life here in France.

France is one of the few countries in Europe that still has a peasant work force. Tied as these people are to the land they cultivate and the food they produce, they are a respected and, for their number, influential group in society.

The fear of globalization is felt most keenly among them, a threat to old traditions and the high quality of their produce that is internationally recognized.

The often-artisanal production of many foodstuffs is worth preserving and fighting for to the French. In part, at least, this is "l'exception francaise" -- an apparent unwillingness to compromise over issues considered vital to the national interest, including cultural and, indeed, culinary matters.

more musings

The French government, as it looks ahead to the new millennium, seems to agree with the people. Never mind that tax money is spent on subsidizing many farmers. It's not an unpopular expense in the public's eye. And never mind that the subsidies help produce gluts in certain fruit and vegetables every year.

The French want healthy, fresh food, grown and produced in an exceptionally French manner, and they're prepared to pay more for it.

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