The modernisation of agriculture

When General de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, French agriculture was in a poor state and farmers were worried.

After the shortages of the immediate post-war period, the re-appearance of production surpluses in 1953 raised the spectre of falling prices. A series of measures taken in 1956 and 1957 sought to remedy the situation by introducing indexation. The general abolition of indexation as part of the Stabilisation Plan of December 1958 caused great concern in farming circles.

At the same time, farming communities were increasingly feeling the pace of change, in the form of the exodus from the countryside. At the end of the 1950s, 20% of the active population were still employed in agriculture but tens of thousands of farming businesses were closing down each  year.

Agriculture was thus the sector with the most urgent need for modernisation, and yet undoubtedly the most delicate to handle, implying as it did the overthrow of traditional attitudes and social structures. The problem was complicated by a clear political divide: the older leaders of the agricultural sector were partisans of a French Algeria. The agricultural sector was where mass and sometimes violent demonstrations against de Gaulle's policies first emerged in 1959.  Mr. Courau, president of the National Farmers' Federation (FNSEA) was struck on the head by a paving stone in one clash, and emotions ran high.

This systematic opposition was not found among the younger generations who were ready to allow French, and therefore European Community agricultural prices, to come more into line with international prices, as long as the viability of family farms was guaranteed and the rapid turnover of generations made the necessary land reallocations possible. It was at this point that the idea of "co-management" was born, with the government passing agricultural laws formulated in conjunction with representatives of the young farmers' association, the Centre National des Jeunes Agriculteurs, and CNJA leaders replacing the older generation at the head of all the farming federations.

The General was in favour of this policy and invited young farmers'  representatives to the Elysée Palace. It was the beginning of what their leader Michel Debatisse would call the "silent revolution", which would receive decisive support from the Prime Minister, Michel Debré.

The aims of French policy would therefore be to maintain prices at a satisfactory level by making agriculture a positive component of the balance of payments, to reform the structure of agriculture from top to bottom,  to introduce social measures to cushion the inevitable impact of the changes, and finally to promote the modernisation of the downstream agricultural and food industries and distribution.

I – Price policy

The landmark law of 5 August 1960, supplemented by the law of 1962, laid down the guidelines of a national policy which was immediately transposed to Community level by the European agreements of 14 January 1962 on cereals. These would subsequently be used as the reference point for further agreements on livestock farming, wine, fruit and vegetables.

The baseline was the existence of guaranteed prices, set each year at European level, for each category of production. In trade with non-Community countries, each of these categories enjoyed a kind of specific exchange rate regime: imports of cereals purchased on world markets at below the guaranteed price and entering the Community would be charged a levy, known as a "compensation payment", equal to the difference between the two prices. In the other direction, exports of EC cereals would be entitled to a "restitution" payment calculated on a similar basis.

The mechanism would lead to the creation in late 1963 of a European Agricultural Orientation and Guarantee Fund (FEOGA)

II – Structural modifications

From 1958-1959 onwards, General de Gaulle and his close colleagues began to perceive in certain farmers' union circles a willingness to accompany this price policy, to which the national farmers' union (FNSEA) was especially committed, by far-reaching reconstruction of farming structures. This was particularly true of the young farmers' association (CNJA), led by Michel Debatisse and François Guillaume.

Laws were passed to make the reconstruction a reality:

- the law of 1960 setting up rural land development and equipment agencies, the Sociétés d’aménagement fonciers et d’équipement rural (SAFER), and the law on pluralism, aimed at fair distribution of land resources;

- the creation of production groups (GAEC) and of agricultural equipment user centres (CUMA), extending the work of the agricultural technical research centres (CETA) set up prior to 1958.

III – Social measures accompanying agricultural change

The principal measure was the introduction of a voluntary redundancy payment (IVD) providing a supplementary pension payment to farmers handing over their farm to a young farmer starting out. 

Management of the payments was entrusted to the social fund for agricultural development (FASASA), instituted by the law of 8 August 1962.

All the social aid and assistance to farmers was covered by an ancillary budget, the budget for agricultural social benefits (BAPSA), set up in 1963.

IV – Downstream: agricultural and food industries, distribution

If agricultural production was to be exploited to the full, changes would be needed in both its processing and its distribution.

One example was the renovation of abattoirs across the country and the construction of the abattoirs of la Villette in Paris, although these proved to be too ambitious in design, and the creation of the central food market at Rungis, using the techniques of sale on sample, as a prelude to the eventual closure of the famous Les Halles market in central Paris. 

At the same time, efforts would be encouraged to find outlets for cheaper cuts of meat (e.g. forequarter meat) in preference to exporting them at a loss, and to develop modern forms of retailing (supermarkets and hypermarkets, discount stores) as pioneered by Edouard Leclerc.

This innovative agricultural policy, truly a silent revolution, jointly managed by government and representatives of the younger generations of farmers, was to simplify the modernisation of the entire country: it would open the gateway to change in the rural world which placed a disproportionate burden on French society, and would free a substantial proportion of the rural population to play a part in the expansion of industry, without the need to rely on immigration.

The agricultural sector was also to become the first example of a supranational European Community policy that was both accepted and even welcomed by General de Gaulle, because it was in the best interests of the nation.