Wines, Cheeses Showcased at French Farm Fair

More than 3,000 animals and vast exhibition halls filled with cheeses, wines and meats.... it must be the annual French Farm Show. More than half a million visitors attended the show that ended today, held at a huge exhibition ground outside Paris.

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There are fewer French farmers today. Though their numbers are smaller, there's no doubt their political influence and popular support: still huge. Record numbers, more than 600,000 people, attended the annual French Farm Show outside Paris, which ended today. Among those visitors were the frontrunners in the presidential election. The farm show is a compulsory stop for the candidates who are all vying for the support of the influential farm lobby.

Eleanor Beardsley sends this postcard from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Picture a giant state fair but on a national level and you can begin to imagine the annual Salon de l'Agriculture, where for the last week 1,500 farmers from around the country have come to exhibit their animals and food products.

The salon is a smorgasbord of scenes, sounds and smells from the heart of rural France, and every year more than half a million people show up to take it all in. Parisian Guy Flocon(ph) is standing next to a giant Charolais bull from the burgundy region. The Charolais is just one of 30 bovine breeds exhibited here.

Mr. GUY FLOCON (Farmer): (Through Translator) We have superb livestock in France, as you can see. Look at this bull behind me, 3,500 pounds. I think that's the record. The farm fair is a great outing for French people and especially for foreigners if they want to get to know our country.

BEARDSLEY: The Salon de l'Agriculture is also a mandatory pit stop for French politicians, especially in an election year. And all week long the candidates have been greeting farmers. Conservative Nicholas Sarkozy spent four hours here Friday. Outgoing President Jacques Chirac was a favorite. The self-acclaimed country boy was known to spend hours swigging wine and caressing cow haunches for the farm vote. There are more than 20,000 food products from around the country on display here - wine, olives, sausages and cheese being sampled and savored. Pierre Atrasek(ph) has brought his goat cheeses up from the Mediterranean region of Languedoc-Roussillon. He says France's connection to its farmers is what sets it apart.

Mr. PIERRE ATRASEK (Farmer): (Through translator) Look at the extraordinary diversity of French foods here. We have to support this. And that's what this fair is all about. It's the meeting point between rural and urban France.

BEARDSLEY: But wine maker Eric Galias(ph) seems less upbeat than his neighbor.

Mr. ERIC GALIAS (Wine Maker): (Through Translator) We're the largest wine making region in the world and because of globalization our costs are higher than our revenues and we're having to pull up vines. We're trying to hang in there but I'm not sure we'll make it.

BEARDSLEY: They want high quality fresh food and they want to know where it comes from. This is a country where cellophane-wrapped meat is viewed with suspicion and people expect to buy chickens, fish and shrimp with the heads still on. Exhibitor Jean Claude Roche(ph) from Le Moge(ph) says his pigs are fed on grains that haven't been genetically modified. He points to the dried sausages hanging above his head.

Mr. JEAN CLAUDE ROCHE (Farmer): (Through translator) This pork sausage is dried for three years and this really gives the meat time to mature. I know that must sound absurd to Americans, smoking meat for three years, but here it's the tradition.

BEARDSLEY: Nineteenth century poet Alphonse de Lamartine said it is not only wheat that emerges from the plowed earth, it is an entire civilization. Even though most French people today live in towns and cities, they still feel that connection. And that's what makes the Salon de l'Agriculture more than just a farm show; it's a cultural event.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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