Inspired to act following the suicide of his father amid the tough conditions of the French farming industry, Jerome Bayle has personified the French farmers campaign to protest pay, regulation and taxes by blocking roads nationwide.
The roadblock he started with a few others near the town of Carbonne, outside Toulouse, was the first in a movement that by yesterday had spread to major roads leading into Paris.
Sporting a bushy beard and a variety of stylish headwear, Mr Bayle insists he never wanted to be a “superhero”. But he now finds himself under attack for contenting himself with the first government concessions.
Mr Bayle has evoked the deeply personal shock of his farmer father’s suicide as a foundation for his activism to AFP and in regular appearances on news channels.
But “the name of the game isn’t getting my name in lights, the name of the game is making sure we can live from our profession,” said the 42-year-old cattle farmer from southwest France.
Mr Bayle started out training to be a stonemason, only to take over the herd of 90 cattle following his father’s death.
Keeping the farm going was a kind of homage to him, he said.
“He couldn’t go on anymore, he wasn’t working properly, he was letting himself go, even though he had been a very good livestock farmer,” he recalled.
Mr Bayle’s friend Joel Tournier, a livestock and cereals farmer who joined the Carbonne roadblock, said that after his father’s death, “he promised himself he would turn the business into a nice farm”.
The pair’s friendship, born on the rugby field, has shown that “Jerome is a leader, everyone gets behind him.
“He doesn’t cheat, he’s uncompromising, honest and passionate about his profession, he puts 100% into everything,” Mr Tournier added.
Mr Bayle’s 75-year-old mother, who ran the farm while he was manning the barricade, told local paper La Depeche du Midi her son is “a go-getter, who speaks as he finds and always has the courage of his convictions”.
“He’s fighting for farmers’ survival. It’s all he thinks about. He’ll keep going to the end,” she added.
Mr Bayle switched his beanie for a yellow and violet baseball cap to meet Prime Minister Gabriel Attal Friday, when the government chief came to the southwest to announce initial concessions.
Highly visible in TV images, he was also granted a private one-on-one meeting with Attal as he had asked.
‘More is needed’
Mr Bayle was also the one to invite Attal to visit the roadblock on the A64 motorway where they addressed a crowd of farmers, journalists and gawkers.
“We’ve been fighting to stop all this,” he said, pointing to effigies representing farmers’ suicides hanging from a motorway bridge.
But some have taken issue with his declaration that farmers had “won” three key concessions from government: the dropping of an agricultural fuel tax increase as well as aid for irrigation and compensation for a recent wave of epidemic disease.
“What was said tonight won’t calm the anger, more is needed,” Arnaud Rousseau, head of the powerful FNSEA farmers’ union, said on Friday.
Mr Bayle has come under attack on social media for what his critics see as caving too quickly.
“I didn’t bend to the state. I bent to our demands that they fulfilled, they’re the ones who bent to us, we won the match,” he told broadcaster BFMTV on Monday.
“The aim of the game was to sound the call to revolt… I didn’t want to be the superhero of French agriculture,” Mr Bayle added.
He quotes one of his friends from that first roadblock, who told him “Jerome, you’ve set the wheel turning again, and now it’s moving every department in France will have to keep it rolling bit by bit”.