PARIS — Any other June, and the little town of Millau, population 21,788, would have nothing more to worry about than the usual traffic jams of sun-seeking vacationers impatiently edging southward on Route Nationale 9.
This week, though, the municipality on the Tarn River in southern France is importing 800 police officers and gendarmes. Schools, day-care centers and government offices will close early today.
Millau is known to the French, if at all, for its 12th century church and other architectural treasures and as a center of glove-making. By this weekend, it may have become as famous--or notorious--as Seattle as a marshaling point for protesters angry over the vast and rapid changes afoot in the world economy.
Today, 10 sheep farmers go on trial in Millau for ransacking the construction site of a local McDonald's in August. "This trial is that of globalization and, especially, that of the criminalization of social action," their pipe-smoking leader and co-defendant, Jose Bove, said in a newspaper interview.
At least 30,000 people--many more than live in Millau--are expected to turn out in a noisy show of support for the defendants. There will be rock concerts, a rave party and intellectual and cultural luminaries, including film directors Jean-Louis Comolli, Robert Guediguian and Claire Simon.
The peasants are to be represented by the former head of the French League of Human Rights. As outlined by Bove, their defense will be that "dismantling" the fast-food outlet was the only means they had of protesting punitive U.S. tariffs on Roquefort, a celebrated local cheese made from ewe's milk.
The tariffs were levied by the Clinton administration to penalize the European Union for not obeying an international ruling to open up markets to hormone-fed U.S. beef.
The raid on McDonald's turned Bove into an instant folk hero, courted by France's president and prime minister alike. Many of the French saw in him a latter-day equivalent of Asterix, the wily and spunky Gaul of comic-book fame who outfoxes the Romans. The two sport the same shaggy mustache.
Co-founder of the radical Peasant Confederation, Bove says he hopes his trial will turn into "Seattle on the Tarn"--a repeat of the outpouring of grass-roots opposition that occurred during a World Trade Organization summit in the Washington city last year. Some of those protesters went on violent rampages. The WTO meeting was a fiasco.
Bove, who has consistently espoused the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience, has become the best-known Frenchman battling la malbouffe--bad food. He has already been sentenced to an eight-month suspended prison term for ripping up a field of genetically modified corn. If convicted in Millau, he and his co-defendants face up to five years in prison and fines of as much as $72,400.
Would a French court dare deal so harshly with a man lionized for taking on a foreign multinational in the vanguard of globalization and the best-known symbol--American, at that--of la malbouffe? It seems doubtful. On the other hand, even politicians sympathetic to Bove's cause have been careful not to endorse what he and the other Peasant Confederation members and sympathizers did in Millau.
Bove himself doesn't contest the facts of the case. But put him in jail, he warned last weekend, and it could "unleash unexpected and dangerous situations for French institutions."
The Millau McDonald's, which managed to begin selling hamburgers about a month after the peasants' Aug. 12, 1999, raid, isn't taking any chances. It will shut its doors for the two days the trial is expected to last.