At the French ‘State Fair’

The agricultural sector in France is, like many sectors elsewhere, struggling. I heard a woeful farmer declare on a radio broadcast at the start of the Salon de l’Agriculture in Paris, which ended a few days ago, that he often asked himself what purpose his work served, or what was the point of his profession. He wasn’t speaking about feeding the world (this was a given), but of his own place in society, as agribusiness overtakes the small farm and farming itself becomes less a profession and more of an industry. Each of us can ask this question of ourselves, of course (none more so, perhaps, than an ex-journalist who writes about his own experiences abroad), but for those in farming, it’s a pressing concern: how to earn a living in a changing world, and whether what we do is worth it.

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Nevertheless, the Salon de l’Agriculture gives you a sense of still how important to the French are land, sowing, tilling, growing, raising, harvesting – farming as a practice, but more so farming as an idea. Many urban French are removed from the rural towns or villages where they were born, but they still harbor a deep affection, or perhaps something stronger – an inchoate connection with a deep generational history – to a place they would no longer want to live, but whose valor they want to maintain, even if it’s only by telling themselves they will buy locally when they think of it.

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The Salon de l’Agriculture is a little like a French national version of a U.S. state fair – albeit with much better food (you’re as likely to find a deep-fried candy bar or a butter sculpture at the Paris fair as you are fresh oysters, foie gras or choucroute garnie at a fair in Iowa). But rather than being held in a fairgrounds somewhere out of town as U.S. state fairs are, the French farm comes to the city to make the fair: the Salon de l’Agriculture takes place at the huge convention center (or the parc des expositions) at the Porte de Versailles, in the 15th arrondissement. Paris is the capital, of course, but holding the fair in Paris is also a way of stressing how important is agriculture in all senses to the French national character.

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One of the many restaurants at the Salon de l’Agriculture, this one with an oyster bar. 

I’ve always been a city boy, and so I love state fairs, or even citified salons de l’agriculture. The Paris fair focuses on the different regions of France, each highlighting a particular livestock – cattle, milk cows, goats, sheep, pork – and the products derived from each, such as sausages and cheeses, as well as the fruits of the earth, such as confiture and, of course, wine. As with American state fairs, you can see demonstrations (of a sort) of cattle or pork traipsing around a hay-strewn pen under the watch of their breeders (I have no idea what such displays are meant to show other than perhaps the robust health of the specimens, but I was delighted simply to see the beasts lumber about). And you can wander around in relative proximity to the animals you only whiz by on the autoroute if you’re off to spend a rustic weekend somewhere.

I stopped by one stand to watch some chicks hatch – this exhibit was devoted to chickens, of course, and you are always aware of what will eventually befall the cute little hatchlings. You’re not at an agricultural fair to ignore the purpose of farming or the raising of livestock. Similarly, hard by the cattle and livestock pens was a beautiful display of freshly butchered meat, ready for purchase.

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At another stand, for the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, I sampled and bought a piece of aged comté.

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Later that day, when I was picking up an additional cheese for dinner at my local cheese merchant, I mentioned to the saleswoman that I’d also bought a comté at the fair, rather than, as usual, from her store. She said, with alarm, “Mais c’est une arnaque,” meaning it was a swindle. She said that the booths at the fair preyed upon tourists such as me. Well, I told her, I was a tourist for the day, but I still wanted to do my part to support the local industry. Anyway, une dame d’un certain âge had bought some cheese from the Comté guy just before I did, and this elderly lady seemed to me to be the very picture of a traditional Parisienne who could in an instant tell a con artist from a genuine merchant. Although this store, Alléosse, on the Rue Poncelet in the 17th arrondissement, is excellent, and sells wonderfully fragrant comté cheese that can be as old as 41 months (Alléosse prides itself on its affinage, or its aging of cheese), the cheese I had bought (which was simply labeled “vieux,” or old) from the vendor at the agricultural fair was also first-rate. Perhaps I’d lucked out.

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The exhibit for Ariège, in the southwest, showcasing its local products. 

But everyone is a tourist of sorts at the Salon de l’Agriculture – the farmers and cheesemakers and winemakers and experts in horticulture who come to Paris, and the Parisians who come to the fair to see their work. Not to mention the politicians, who almost all make an appearance at the Salon de l’Agriculture, to show solidarity with the farming bloc, as it were, and to support this idea of France as a country ruled by ideas but nourished by those who work the land. Many in the agricultural sector, apparently, support the far-right Marine Le Pen, whose xenophobia, racism and “France first” platform appeals to people who think that closing oneself off from the world is the way to succeed in it.

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Socialist-party presidential candidate Benoît Hamon gives an interview during the Salon de l’Agriculture. 

When I was at the fair, the socialist-party candidate, Benoît Hamon, was also there. I caught a glimpse of him as he gave an interview, but when he descended from a platform to walk among the stands, he was lost amid a crowd of journalists wielding microphones and cameras – as fairgoers jostled each other to glimpse him, and as they all moved in a mass toward one or two stands for an awkward photo opportunity.

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The back of the presidential candidate Benoît Hamon’s head, lost in the crowd of journalists, at the Salon de l’Agriculture.

I moved on from the political spectacle, such as it was, to take in more of the stands, and to savor samples of chorizo, chocolate, cheese and sablés.

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The Salon de l’Agriculture is, of course, also a delight for families with children, who love animals as much as anyone who doesn’t have to tend to them.

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And like a born urbanite, I took a selfie with a cow – because, why not?

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Selfie with cows.

I’m going to show the photo to the woman at the cheese store, and let her know that although I was indeed a tourist ready to be plundered by rapacious farmers, I had a wonderful time.

And of course, a Parisian fair simply wouldn’t be a fair without at least one representation of the Eiffel Tower, such as one in fruits and vegetables.

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I’m already looking forward to next year’s fair.

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