This seems an unlikely spot to fight a trade war.
A village of 600 souls in a remote part of southern France, Roquefort clings precariously to the side of Combalou Rock, a promontory overlooking a deep valley where sheep graze in the shadow of limestone cliffs that were sheared off by a seismic jolt in prehistoric times.
But the primal shake also carved out aerated underground crevasses that give a unique economic value to this jagged landscape about 65 miles northwest of Montpellier. They make possible a gastronomical wonder that has delighted gourmets for centuries: Roquefort cheese. And now, in an era of globalized competition for trade, the smelly delicacy and its little home town have become ground zero for the warriors of export-import in Washington.
The United States, it turns out, has declared war on Roquefort cheese.
In its final days, the Bush administration imposed a 300 percent duty on Roquefort, in effect closing off the U.S. market. Americans, it declared, will no longer get to taste the creamy concoction that, in its authentic, most glorious form, comes with an odor of wet sheep and veins of blue mold that go perfectly with rye bread and coarse red wine.
The measure, announced Jan. 13 by U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab as she headed out the door, was designed as retaliation for a European Union ban on imports of U.S. beef containing hormones. Tit for tat, and all perfectly legal under World Trade Organization rules, U.S. officials explained.
Besides, they said, Roquefort is only one of dozens of European luxury products that were attacked with high tariffs. The list includes, among other things, French truffles, Irish oatmeal, Italian sparkling water and "fatty livers of ducks and geese," which apparently is how Washington trade bureaucrats say foie gras.
But the cheese producers and sheep farmers around Roquefort do not see it that way. Only Roquefort got hit with such a high duty that it amounts to a ban, they complain. In their view, this unfairly undermines not only the economy of Roquefort, which depends entirely on cheese, but also the well-being of the 4,500 people who herd special ewes on 2,100 farms producing milk for Roquefort in a carefully defined oval grazing area across the Larzac Plain and up and down nearby hills and valleys.
"This measure is completely out of proportion," said Robert Glandières, a sheep farmer who heads the Regional Federation of Ewe Raisers' Unions. "It's a little bit of a provocation."
If so, it would not be the first provocation in the history of the Roquefort war. The United States first imposed unusual 100 percent tariffs on Roquefort in 1999, when the dispute with the European Union over hormoned-up beef first got nasty. In reaction, a local peasant rabble-rouser named José Bové rose up, decrying unnatural foods, industrial agriculture and disrespect for traditional ways. Even before he led a group in tearing up a local McDonald's, it was clear the United States was his main target.
Bové was convicted of a crime for his gesture. But many French people agreed with his sentiments, none more so than the people of the Roquefort region. For them, the preservation of culinary tradition is a way of life — and a livelihood.
Several years later, then-President Jacques Chirac added to the irritation in Washington with his criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was the time of "freedom fries" in the United States and of disdain for things French, including Roquefort.
Lingering irritation over Iraq?
Since then, President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to put U.S.-French relations back on a more friendly footing. But Glandières said residual irritation may have been at work in the U.S. trade representative's office when the decision was made to triple the tax on Roquefort. He also acknowledged that the French government, with its own beef industry to promote, did nothing to help, having led the charge against U.S. beef in Europe.
Despite the ill feelings, Roquefort producers went out of their way to preserve a place in the U.S. market even after the 100 percent tax was imposed. Milk producers and cheesemakers alike took revenue cuts to keep prices down for U.S.-bound exports.
As a result, by some measures U.S. sales rose slightly despite the punitive duty. Glandières said frustration about that among U.S. officials might also have played a role in the new tariff rate. "From what we hear, the Americans couldn't stand to see Roquefort was still on the supermarket shelves in the United States," he said.
The proportion of Roquefort exported to the United States remained small, however, amounting last year to only 450 tons out of 19,000 produced and 3,700 in total exports. Spain, with purchases of 1,000 tons, was by far the largest foreign customer.
In any case, Glandières said, the days of attacks on McDonald's are over, and the only recourse now is diplomacy. A McDonald's sign beckons unmolested just outside the headquarters of Glandières' federation in Millau, the region's main town.
In that spirit, Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier recently called the tariff rate "unjustified" but said he hoped to open a new dialogue with the United States. A delegation of local elected officials went to the U.S. Embassy in Paris last week to present their case politely.
Underlying the hopes for improvement is an impression widely shared by people in France that President Obama's administration, free of baggage from the dispute over Iraq, will prove more sympathetic to France — and in this case to the traditional cheesemakers of Roquefort. But Glandières noted that Obama has a lot to deal with. "I don't think Roquefort will be the first thing on his mind," he said.
Aside from the commercial dispute, however, Roquefort's cheese producers and sheep raisers have expressed wonder that their little town and its exquisite gastronomical tradition could get caught up in a 21st-century trade conflict that seems so distant from their pastoral lives. In some ways, their dilemma has become a symbol for many communities in France where globalization seems to intrude on long-cherished traditions.
Local legend says Roquefort got its start in Roman times when a young shepherd guarding his flock nearby happened on a beautiful girl. Smitten and determined to follow her, the youth stowed his knapsack, containing cheese and rye bread, in a little cave created by one of the crevasses that run through the hills of the region. On his return some time later, he found the bread had turned moldy and passed the spores to the cheese, which was veined with blue. Desperately hungry, he ate the cheese anyway — and Roquefort cheese was born.
However Roquefort got its start, the people of this village have been making it for a long time. They were granted a monopoly on producing the cheese by King Charles VI in 1411. In 1666, the parliament in Toulouse granted Roquefort a "controlled designation of origin," which made it illegal for other communities to claim they were producing it. A decree from the prime minister in 2001 reviewed in excruciating detail how Roquefort must be produced to retain its distinction, including boundaries for the ewes' grazing grounds.
"There are conditions here that are natural and unique," said Martin Bonnet as he led a tour of the Papillon company's caves, honeycombed under Roquefort's main street.