French farmers have always been a militant group but the grave difficulties facing wine producers have prompted an escalation in the level of disruption and violence which demonstrating growers have been prepared to go to. Stuart Todd reports on the unfolding story in the Languedoc region of southern France and the prospect of further unrest to come.

An uneasy calm reigns over the vast vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon, in southern France, after the wave of virulent protest in recent months at perceived government inaction to winemakers' ills.

At the start of the year, the French authorities announced a €70m national package of aid to the country's wine industry hit by rising production, declining domestic consumption and shrinking export markets. This focused on alleviating the financial plight of growers through tax breaks and bank loans at preferential rates while provision was also made for early retirement incentives.

However, the package fell well short of the Languedoc growers' expectations and even a subsequent doubling of public aid was dismissed as inadequate. 

The region's closely-knit small-holder growers, most of whom are part of co-operative structures, vented their discontent at three major demos spread over monthly intervals this spring  - each attracting 8,000 to 10,000 protesters, the first in Montpellier degenerating into a near-riot. 

But it was the anger and violence flaring up at regular intervals on the fringes of the demos which caught the eye  - dynamite attacks on state buildings and a customs warehouse, cars set ablaze, damage done to a local railway line disrupting traffic, as well as other acts of vandalism directly targeted at foreign wines -  the ransacking of discount supermarkets, emptying of vats and the interception of road tankers en route from Spain.

The ugliest incident by far was an attempt to set on fire a Spanish lorry while the driver was asleep in his cab. The next day, around 60 protesters returned to the scene to empty the tanker of wine.

Responsibility for the commando-style raids has been attributed to a breakaway militant group of growers, CRAV (Comite Regional d'Action Viticole).  Police have made a number of arrests among their ranks uncovering baseball bats, steel hammers, hoods and gas masks.

Since the demo in Nimes at the end of May the growers have kept a relatively low profile but representatives of their mainstream unions have warned that future action could take a different but unspecified form.

The lull in the movement can perhaps be explained by the tough line being adopted by French law enforcers which sees prison sentences hanging over protesters suspected of acts of vandalism. Another factor may well be the approaching harvest which is keeping growers fully occupied in the vineyards. 

Interviewed recently by regional newspaper, Midi Libre, two spokesmen for CRAV, whose anonymity was preserved, talked defiantly of a protest campaign which risks becoming more and more acrimonious and warned of a possible escalation in violence.

One spoke candidly of the direct action being undertaken: "What has happened is that we've spent too long negotiating lost causes and the result is that in certain quarters very radical viewpoints now prevail," he said. "Going out on an 'operation,'  I have a knot in my stomach out of fear of not coming home to my wife and kids and having to sell-up. You think very carefully about what you are doing. When you arrive at the rendezvous and you learn that there are people taking part who have guns in their cars you realise it really is time to say 'enough is enough' and go home. Some of the younger guys are beyond our control and to see the lengths they are apparently prepared to go to in serving the cause is frightening." 

The danger is that many of these growers are desperate men with nothing to lose. Surplus production and declining consumption means they are still holding around 80% of the 2004 harvest in stock as this year's crop is about to reach maturity.   

Their plight can be summed by the lament of one grower who claimed that last year he was selling his wine at €1.25/litre and now can't even find a buyer at €0.75/litre when below  €1/litre he is already losing money. Other than a system that would maintain prices at an artificial level, it is difficult to see how many of these growers can stay in business much longer.

As much as the militants point the finger accusingly at imported wines for their plight,  the real issue is how to arrest the decline in domestic consumption which absorbs 75% of Languedoc wines volumes. The region's growers have not been helped by their "aristocratic" neighbours in the Bordeaux vineyards to the north who, having seen their main export markets collapse, have muscled in on the Vin de Table and Vin de Pays segments and into direct competition with Languedoc wines  

So far, protests have been confined to the Languedoc and there is little prospect of it spreading to other regions. The government would appear to have the situation well under control and is under little or no pressure to cede ground to the militants.

But there is a possibility that the activists are simply biding their time before attempting a grand media coup to put them back in the spotlight, such as disrupting the Tour de France when it passes through the region later this month.
     
This seems unlikely, the CRAV hinting that while the targets will remain the same, tactics may differ and in particular, the employment of a greater degree of stealth. But the CRAV has promised a  blazing summer of discontent and time will tell whether this will be the ultimate offensive in a losing battle.

The Languedoc small-holders are caught up in the most profound upheaval ever witnessed in the wine sector in France with simply too much wine on the market and too many winemakers producing it.