Democracy, Language and Rosé Wine

Teleri Williams on the Païs Nòstre debate on the European elections and Occitan language and culture.

30 May 2009 Laure-Minervois

Limestone walls, terracotta tiles, wine vats: the setting seemed far from Brussels, but the courtyard of the Domaine de Vignalet in Laure-Minervois was where Païs Nòstre, which aims to preserve Occitan language and culture, invited candidates standing in the European elections to debate some of the issues which are important to this area of southern France. The main pre-arranged questions were on European democracy and the position of president of the EU; minority languages; new regulations for the production of rosé wine; and whether you would demonstrate for Occitan issues.  Candidates from six of the eleven lists came: Socialist, MoDem (which resembles British Lib-Dems), UMP (Sarkozy's party — interestingly the representative, Marie-Thérèse Sanchez-Schmidt, is Catalan), Europe Écologie (green), right-wing Gaullist and CPNT (conservative countryside grouping). Often they spoke disappointingly, predictably like the politicians they are, making generalisations and attempts to score party political points. But it was exciting to be part of a lively bilingual debate, especially when members of the audience contributed.  French and Occitan were used almost equally. It is unusual here for Occitan to be given such prominence in a public forum; Jacme Delmas, who asked the questions, repeatedly assured us that Occitan was not forbidden here.

The Sud-Ouest European constituency covers a huge area of southern France — three regions, Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrenees and Aquitaine — and includes three indigenous languages and cultures other than French: Occitan, Catalan and Basque.  Introducing the debate, journalist and Païs Nòstre president Jean-Pierre Laval spoke of the occasion last winter when this same courtyard was the venue for a gathering of campaigners who certainly know how large this region is, for they have walked the 1300km from Piemonte, Italy, through Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon to Val d'Aran in Spanish Catalunya, from one side of the Occitan-speaking area to the other. Occitània a Pé (Occitania on foot) was a campaign for the addition of Occitan to the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The question of minority languages was one of the most avidly discussed topics in this debate. Unlike other European countries, France has so far refused to ratify the Charter for regional and minority languages because of claims that it is unconstitutional. The speakers, especially Jean-Louis Roumégas of the Greens and Anne Laperrouze, the MoDem representative, insisted that within the European Parliament, at least, the situation could be improved through the implementation of a directive on minority languages. The Socialist Eric Andrieu suggested that the first stage should be ratification of the Charter by the French government. While this should be the eventual aim, he seemed to me to be absolving himself of responsibility. The Gaullist candidate, Henri Temple, an Occitan speaker, described Occitan as "a lenga del amor, de la natura, de la terra" (the language of love, nature and the land), but this is an attitude which has contributed to the decline of the language and ignores the need for official recognition. The directive would allow minority languages which may be official languages in nations which are not member states to be spoken officially in the Parliament. Basque, Catalan and Occitan — like Welsh — would benefit from this. Basque is an official language in the Basque autonomous region and in parts of Navarra; Catalan is an official language in Spanish (or southern) Catalunya, but not in French (northern) Catalunya; Occitan is an official language only in the Val d'Aran in Catalunya, but not in the majority of the Occitan territory which is part of the French state. I was amused to hear that Catalan MEPs insist on speaking English in the Parliament, refusing on principle to speak Spanish. Perhaps, I thought, the Welsh MEPs should speak Spanish!

In some other parts of Europe the question of the methods by which rosé wine can be produced may seem relatively trivial. Here, in what has been called the largest vineyard in the world, it is a vital matter and traditional methods are hotly defended. Almost all indigenous families have connections with vine-growing and most still own vines, even if that is no longer they way they earn their living. Around Laure-Minervois there are vineyards literally as far as one can see in any direction. Bottles of Domaine de Vignalet's traditional rosé were on the table for the speakers. Grapes are much more than an annual crop which produces an enjoyable drink. The meaning of the words vigneron (winemaker) and viticulteur (vine-grower) signify an identity which goes as deep as the roots of a vine in the dry soil. The 1907 wine-growers' revolt aimed to establish a winemakers' state in the region and many still regret that they were unable to do this.

The common feeling is that winemakers' efforts to make a living and uphold valuable traditions are restricted and even perhaps deliberately sabotaged by diktats from afar — Paris and Brussels are equally remote — decisions made by people who have no sympathy with or understanding of the life and culture of the Midi. It is reminiscent of farming in Wales, but I think the sense of betrayal of a culture by those who cannot identify with it is even stronger here. I have heard the regulation and perceived destruction of winemaking described as a continuation of the process of obliteration of Occitan culture which began with the 1209 massacre of Cathars in Béziers (an event which seems almost topical here as its 800th anniversary is commemorated this year). So the recent decision by the European Commission to allow rosé to be made by mixing red and white wines, as is permitted in California and Australia, instead of the traditional method of using red grapes and separating the juice from the skins early in the process, is seen as symbolic of this betrayal and as a direct attack on the culture and traditions of the wine-growing areas of Europe. Just at a time when rosé is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, winemakers say, this blow hits producers. The EU compromise of creating a special label recognising a traditionally made wine is not acceptable to them.

All the main party representatives at this meeting were strongly against this move, describing it as dégeulasse (disgusting), and saw the European Parliament as a means to prevent its implementation; the final decision will be made by the European Commission on 19 June. 

When it came to the question of supporting Occitan issues by attending demonstrations, of course, all said they would. We shall see how many of them are at Carcassonne in October when the biennial Anem Oc demonstration takes place.

Issues may vary across the European Union, but there are concerns about democracy everywhere. The European Parliament and MEPs have no power to create laws, only to confirm or reject the measures drawn up by the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Opinions from this platform ranged predictably from the Gaullist who argued for more power from 'below', but from an anti-EU perspective, and Eddie Puyjalon, the CPNT candidate, who believed all decisions should be taken in France; to more pro-EU positions: the MoDem candidate who saw it as a place of discussion and compromise and the Green who, while wanting more democracy, relished the opportunity to work with other regional groups and specifically mentioned Scotland and Wales.  Neglect of issues seen as important by the electorate in some areas, such as the Occitan language and winemaking in this region, was for him a political decision and could be remedied only by investing political power in the regions. The establishment view, for instance, that Occitan culture should be preserved just enough — as "a little bit of folklore" — to be a tourist attraction, denies its local significance. There was much talk of diversity at this meeting: maybe something which the EU can help to achieve is a recognition of diversity in France, a state which is over-centralised in its bureaucracy and in official attitudes to linguistic and cultural difference.

In the European elections 2009, the Greens (Europe Écologie) doubled their share of the vote in the Sud-Ouest region to 15.82%, and their number of seats from 1 to 2.

Païs Nòstre (in Occitan):
Petition against non-traditional methods of making rosé wine (in French):
Domaine de Vignalet (in French and English):

Teleri Williams