Attack appears to be retaliation for publicising the dangers of pesticides. By Jonathan Matthews
News has emerged that the farmer Paul François, who has been involved in a protracted and high-profile legal battle with Monsanto, was brutally attacked at his home in Bernac, a village in Charente in southwestern France, on 30 January.
According to reports, the 59-year-old farmer was attacked by three hooded men after he put his car in the garage. Having seized him, they tied his legs and arms with electric cables and wrapped a scarf around his neck, which they shut in the rear door of his vehicle. Once they had Paul François immobilised, the attackers threatened him with a knife to his throat and attempted to make him swallow a liquid, while telling him, “We are tired of hearing you and seeing your face on TV.”
Fortunately, because he had been on the phone to his sister when he arrived back in his car, Paul François was able to shout to her to get help during the attack. And when lights outside his home suddenly came on, triggered by movement sensors, he told his attackers that it was people coming to his aid. His assailants then fled the scene but not before kicking the farmer’s legs from under him, leaving the scarf strangling him.
Deeply traumatised by what occurred, Paul François is said now to be under police protection. Meanwhile an investigation has been launched by the Angoulême prosecutor's office into an assault so aggressive that one report labelled it “attempted murder”.
There have been many expressions of sympathy and support for Paul François, as well as condemnations of the attack, which people are linking to his battle with Monsanto – now part of Bayer. That battle began in 2004, when he was poisoned by Monsanto’s soon-to-be-banned Lasso herbicide, after breathing in its fumes while working. The impacts on Paul François’s health, which have included neurological disorders, have been so severe that he is recognised as disabled and has been repeatedly hospitalised, even for months at a time.
In 2007, Paul François launched his lawsuit against the company for not providing adequate warnings on the product label of Lasso’s dangers, but Monsanto fought him every step of the way, resulting in an exhausting 15-year battle through the courts, which only concluded in December of last year. Although the farmer won five separate legal victories, which included Monsanto being found guilty of severely harming his health in 2012 and again on appeal in 2015, the company continued its aggressive rearguard action, appealing every possible decision.
In 2020, the Court of Cassation, France’s supreme court of appeal, confirmed the responsibility of Bayer-Monsanto for his injuries, saying that the company’s product was both defective and badly labelled. But in December 2022, Bayer (formerly Monsanto) was ordered to pay Paul François a mere 11,135 euros, after the company argued that his considerable medical costs had been covered by a state insurance scheme for farmers. That outcome was met with a storm of condemnation.
His long and arduous legal battle against the multinational has helped make Paul François something of a David vs Goliath figure in France and his case has drawn public attention to the dangers of pesticides and the power of the industry. He has also criticised the French President, Emmanuel Macron, for reneging on his promise to ban glyphosate. “The president lacked courage. The authorities in France remain under the diktat of these companies,” he said.
In a press release about the 30 January attack on Paul François, the senator for Charente, Nicole Bonnefoy, has said she is “scandalised” by the “excessively violent” assault he had suffered. “I send him all my support. Obviously, they want to silence the courage of this farmer who rose up against the largest manufacturer of pesticides and succeeded in condemning Bayer-Monsanto… The response of the public authorities must be very firm and exemplary so as not to give in to violence.”
Another French senator, Mélanie Vogel, tweeted, “This is frightening news that reminds us of what some are prepared to do to maintain a model [of agriculture] that, for the enrichment of a few, damages farmers, destroys the planet and threatens our common future. Full support to Paul François.”
And the National Secretary of the EELV, France’s Green Party, Marine Tondelier, tweeted, “How far will the omerta that reigns around pesticides and their effects on health go?”, referring to the Mafia’s code of silence around their criminal activities that means anyone who breaks it risks severe retaliation. She said Paul François had “already suffered far too much” from this business and that “everything must be done to ensure his safety and protect him from intimidation and attacks.”