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French farmers can't cow agriculture minister

They booed her. They heckled her. The French farmers even walked out on her.

But France's new agriculture minister refused to wilt.

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Dressed like the elegant Parisienne she is, complete with high heels and rouge, Edith Cresson plowed steadily on, outlining her government's program to hostile farmers here in this English Channel resort.

Perhaps it was because she has been through worse. A couple of weeks before her recent talk here to the congress of the country's main farmers' union (FNSEA), demonstrators led by the same union chased her through a Norman bog shouting that she didn't know how to milk a cow.

French farmers have been venting their anger toward Paris over farm prices for a long time now. Since the Socialists took power last spring, however, a near war has broken out between farmers and the government. The government's attempt to achieve a cease-fire with its angry farmers may lead to a serious rupture in the European Community.

Prices remain a hot point of contention for the farmers. But they are equally incensed over both the appointment of a woman as an agriculture minister, and her attempts to break the FNSEA's monopoly over farm affairs while implementing socialist ideas in the countryside.

Mrs. Cresson can seem to do nothing right by the farmers. In her talk, she repeated her determination to fight for a sizable 14 percent price increase, equivalent to the rate of inflation in France.

To that end, she attacked Britain's threats to veto any rise in farm prices until the EC agrees to a bigger cut in Britain's budget contribution.

''It is unacceptable that Great Britain continues to prevent the regular functioning of the Common Market,'' she said. ''If they keep the same attitude, they will have to face the consequences,'' namely a split in the market and French subsidies of its farmers in defiance of market rules.

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Still, this pledge did not satisfy the farmers. FNSEA president Francois Guillaume repeated his demand for a 16 percent price increase. Because the average real income of French farmers has fallen in each of the past eight years , he argued that his members need price increases greater than the rate of inflation.

This prike hike issue is shaping up as a European-wide tussle, but the farmers here seemed just as upset about Mrs. Cresson's domestic initiatives. Part of their complaint is purely domestic: Largely, conservative, they believe farming is a man's job, and a woman's place is in the home.

So President Mitterrand's appointment of a female agriculture minister shocked them. Around the congress here, there were catcalls mocking her femininity. Others said she just wasn't ''intellectually'' capable for the job.

There are also serious policy issues separating Mrs. Cresson and the FNSEA. That union used to have exclusive rights to negotiate for the farmers. Mrs. Cresson has tried to bring small, left-wing farm unions into the negotiating process.

FNSEA is also upset about her attempts to set up new state-run farm boards to organize markets of various agricultural products, and about a plan to transfer revenue from large-scale prosperous farmers in the north to poorer, small-scale farmers in the mountainous center of the country.

The farmers at the meeting said they fear these proposals will restrict their profits in good years. Yet more fundamentally, they are skeptical of too much state intervention in their affairs. ''You have to respect our liberty,'' union leader Guillaume told Mrs. Cresson at the congress.

Madeline Bouvier, a farmer from Lyons and one of the few women outside of Mrs. Cresson at the congress, put this in plainer language: ''We don't want all their fancy aid, just fair prices with our products.''

For, despite all the histrionics between Mrs. Cresson and the FNSEA, the fact is that French farmers are being squeezed. Their pleasant way of life, handed down generation to generation, is disappearing. Thirty years ago one-third of all Frenchmen worked the land, today only 8 percent do, Agriculture Ministry statistics show.

Henri Buissant, a dairy farmer from Grenoble, explained the common predicament. ''I have 30 cows on 28 hectares,'' he said. ''I work 60 to 70 hours week, and I still can't make ends meet. I can't invest in the tractor I need. I never take a vacation. And I am fearful for the future - I wanted to give the farm to my two sons, but if things continue the way they are going, I won't be able to.''

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