French produce workers threaten strike

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LISA MULLINS: These are tough times too for fruit and vegetable producers in France and true to French tradition they're threatening strikes and protests if the government doesn't do something. The World's Gerry Hadden sends us this report from Brittany in western France.

GERRY HADDEN: At the Sunday outdoor market in the small coastal village of Plomeur local farmers sells cheese, sausage, and the season's fruits and vegetables. One vendor named Valerie Vigier hawks pears. It's not going well. Competition is strong because the harvest has been good and on top of that the European Union's agriculture ministry in Brussels has just ordered France's fruit and vegetable farmers to repay some $700 million in subsidies they received from the French government � subsidies handed out more than 10 years ago.

TRANSLATOR: For me it's totally unfair. It's already hard enough for the farmers to make a living. Now they're asking us to pay back this subsidy. It makes no sense. I imagine your employer must be covering your travel expenses. So what if in 10 years they ask you to pay it back. It's unfair.

HADDEN: And unrealistic. Farm association leaders say the money in question went to more than half of France's fruit and vegetable farmers. Many have retired, closed shop, moved, or even died. The funds were to help them export their produce. Brussels says the subsidies constituted an unfair trade practice giving the French an advantage over other European farmers. But strawberry vendor Patrick Keuleuf says that's hypocritical.

HADDEN: He says sure we've been aided by the French state but some of our competitors, like Spain, they pay their immigrant laborers from Morocco or Algeria $8 to $10 a day. That's a fair of unfair trade too.

Concern here mounted last week when France's agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, told a newspaper that he'd enforce Brussels's ruling. But the ensuing uproar saw him back pedal a bit.


HADDEN: He went on TV to say that he'd like to be able to examine each subsidy case by case. No producer in a vulnerable position who fears for his livelihood will have to pay the money back he said.

Farmers however don't seem convinced. One farm leader warned Paris and Brussels that if even one farmer has to return the years-old export subsidy the French countryside will burn. Tough words aimed at bureaucrats. But France's summer farm crisis doesn't end there. In fact it reaches all the way to the sea and under it. The country's multi-million dollar oyster industry is even deeper peril. A stroll along the fisherman's port in the nearby city of Lorient illustrates the point. It's 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning. Normally the oyster farmers would still be out here readying the day's harvest for market but they're finishing earlier and earlier because there are fewer and fewer oysters. A mysterious illness is wiping out baby oysters. On some farms the mortality rate is 100 percent. At Lorient's bustling seafood market an oyster farmer named Jean Claude digs through a bin to show me what the oyster malady does.


HADDEN: Here's one he says. He points to a baby oyster forming on the shell of an adult. Normally he says it stays there for about two months before separating. But as you can see with the illness the bond cracks at six weeks. You'll need to talk to the scientists if you want answers as to why.

Scientists suspect a strain of the herpes virus is behind the oyster deaths. Test results won't be in for a few weeks. In the meantime one hypothesis is that steadily warming sea water has given such diseases more traction. Oysters are particularly vulnerable because they filter huge amounts of seawater to feed themselves. This is the second year of dying oyster beds. And for the French, especially in Brittany, we're not talking about just any old shellfish. We're talking about a way of life. At Le Jardin Gourmand restaurant in Lorient chef Natalie Bove says she can't imagine the possibility of her oysters disappearing.

TRANSLATOR: When you eat an oyster from Brittany you have the impression that you're tasting the sea itself. The sea is our identity.

HADDEN: France lost all of its oysters once before about 40 years ago, also due to disease. Farmers repopulated with Pacific oysters from Japan which have proved more resistant. No one knows what might happen if those oysters fall pray to illness too. For The World I'm Gerry Hadden, Brittany, France.