The world board

Larzac is famous and paradoxical: as the scene of a struggle against the state that has become emblematic, but also because its economy is a model of integration into global capitalism. Philippe Artires traces its history.

The people of Larzac produces a sort of stratigraphic section of the most famous plateau of the Massif Central. Anxious to place the recent history of the Causse in its long history, Philippe Artires presents the future of Larzac from prehistory to the present day, that is to say from the hunter-gatherers of heroic times to the tourists passing through the XXIe century. However, there should be no mistake, the real object of this historian's investigation is indeed the confrontation, which culminated in the 1970s, between the plans of the military and the central state on one side, and the peasant and activist nebula, on the other. Artires' work therefore consists of inserting this emblematic conflict into the history of the plateau, and giving it an anointing of autochthony.

Sweeping 2,500 years of history into 307 pages is a challenge. Through a structured approach and evident writing quality, Artires takes up this challenge with elegance and conviction. Nourished by his expertise on the approach to the margins and disciplinary institutions, opened to new historiographical perspectives and enriched with a more classic economic history, his investigation appears to be a history that is both total and modest. Three times, finally converging at XXIe century, frame the narrative: that of the agro-pastoral economy, then that of the army and finally that of the struggle. For Artires, Larzacian struggles arise from the clash of opposing logics: the pastoral economy open to the market on the one hand, and state and military territorial planning on the other. The first prevails, albeit temporarily, by the constitution of the plateau into a territory of convergence of struggles and a democratic political issue.

Sheep with Roquefort

The history of the Larzac plateau illustrates in an exemplary manner the triumph of a pastoral economy dominated by religious establishments. A formidable climate and rocky soils strongly constrain rural work on the causse. At XIIe century, the Templars settled permanently in this austere territory and were the first to assign it its ovine vocation. The trend started by the religious was no longer denied subsequently, so much so that the current tourist dimension skilfully promotes it. In the pre-industrial economy, livestock farming has a commercial and food purpose, but it also supports the deployment of essential artisanal activities. Medieval parchments, piled up in archives and libraries, are the first obvious trace. But leather working is more generally a fundamental means of development in the Ancien Régime economy. Sheep farming has not only shaped the environment of the plateau but also the economy of the neighboring valleys and conditioned its urbanization.

In its foundation, the history of Larzac ultimately hardly differs from that of many French regions. But the entry into the era of Roquefort constitutes a completely original bifurcation. Regional specialization is the daughter of XIXe century and the railway. The diversification of regions and the strengthening of local economic identities have therefore shaped French geography. In this movement, this parsley-paste sheep's cheese, made in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (hence its name), is marked by its specificities. Refined for a long time and relatively easy to store, it has made it possible to recover astronomical quantities of milk on a very large scale. Roquefort has become an exported brand supported by an efficient capitalist economy having definitively linked the history of the plateau to that of the world. Which plateau quickly and so well integrated into the world economy that it became an importer of milk.

Artires is unfortunately not very eloquent on the causes of this commercial success and its strictly human and social dimension. The question is all the more interesting since, in the 1970s, the Parisian friendly movement played an important role in the future of the mobilization. However, even if the nationals of the Causse prefer to emigrate to Marseille, the links between the Causse and Paris are already intense and old. The entire Massif Central plays the role of a demographic reservoir serving the capital. At XIXe century, the Aveyron bougnats monopolized the economy of Parisian drinking establishments. Larzac is, in reality, a space opened to the national and international market by the Auvergne diaspora so present on the banks of the Seine. The people of Larzac live well beyond the limits of the plateau, helping to shape their local identity and forge their reputation.

Larzac in colonial history

The opening of the plateau to the world economy has its counterpart: remote, even isolated, Larzac is also the territory of being brought into line and iron discipline. Leather workers are the first victims of their working conditions. There was subsequently a lot of confinement on the high plateau. A recovery camp through agricultural work is set up there at XIXe century. Then, the army came into play, first by placing Spanish refugees there, then by imprisoning Algerian independence activists before welcoming, temporarily, harkis.

This work thus shows how the military history of the plateau initially turns out to be that of surveillance and discipline. Its isolation constitutes a research resource. Before being a training ground, the plateau was an internment camp. But, in the context of the Cold War, of an army of conscription and colonial defeat, Larzac naturally aroused the desire of a general staff in need of land for its military preparations. Since the interwar period, the state has strengthened its military presence in the South of France, mainly in response to the German threat and the desire to preserve the military-industrial apparatus. At the end of the Second World War, this company strengthened and changed its nature in the same movement.

By immersing army projects in the modernizing context of the 1960s, Artires clearly explains why the military has little reason to doubt the success of their enterprise which is part of a global approach to interior colonization, as peasant activists mention. Undoubtedly, the author could have emphasized more that the planning state is then no longer just the military state. Parisian influence on the southern territories is manifested by industrial planning, the development of tourist infrastructures, but also the protection of nature. Gabrielle Hecht thus showed how the installation of southern nuclear sites was designed and defended as a center of modernization intended to emerge from rural and remote areas of relative underdevelopment. The creation of the Cevennes national park or the implementation of the Racine mission around Montpellier were part of a logic of the same order. The desire to expand the camp, so desired by the military, continues a centuries-old history of descent from the central state, and Parisian state, towards southern France.

Fight, invent

Arrival of the Larzac Paris walkers – Image taken from the documentary by Christian Rouaud, Tous au Larzac

From this perspective, the history of the mobilization of the Larzac plateau gains in intensity and meaning. This is simply the only victorious opposition to the major development projects of the Ve Republic. Certainly, the political will was certainly not as strong in La Cavalerie as Palavas-les-Flots, Port-Leucate or Marcoule, but the profuse mobilization of the causse and its allies led to the failure of the project. Through her determination and patience, she seized up a formidable administrative machine.

Following the progression of the mobilization for safeguarding step by step, almost day by day, Artires brings back to life an original and powerful socialization process. The strength and longevity of the movement comes from the solidity of its roots and the near unanimity of the plateau against the plans of the military. It was first of all for the peasants to defend their land, their property and their working tools. But, without ever renouncing their seminal commitment, the people of Larzac transformed their plateau into a sounding board for the struggles and causes of the time. A form of exchange thus took place between actors who, at the outset, nothing was supposed to bring together: an anchor and a ground on one side, ideals and words on the other. Isn't it, ultimately, this cocktail that we find in the various oppositions to major infrastructure projects, out of date before even being built?? Notre-Dame-des-Landes, as on Larzac, is also the state which, through its hesitations and delays in carrying out its projects, gave its opponents the time necessary for their victory.

Excerpt from the film by Ch. Rouaud

For Larzac, this alchemy is what gives the strength of its history and its anchoring in memories. It made possible, very early and in a very structured way, the formalization of essential issues in today's world. Maintaining a dynamic rural population, connected to the land through property and work, constitutes an essential lever not only for food security and pleasure, but also for the preservation of environments and biodiversity. the time when the powers of marketing and economics post-industrial, like the digital giants and the proponents of veganism, make the break with nature and the earth a condition for the salvation of the planet, Artires' book is a timely reminder that, on the contrary, strengthening this link is a necessity of time. In this sense, The people of Larzacthrough its immersive writing, will delight readers interested in the history of the fight, and will arouse, through the open avenues, the curiosity of all those who wish to understand more about the specificities of the plateau.