Let’s talk about…The pumpkin soup and the Mona Lisa

My ‘up close and personal’ view of France’s environmental and agricultural protests

Here at the Roscommon People, we are dedicated to ensuring we bring you the latest news. We are in fact so committed to being the first to the story that last weekend, I was in the Louvre in Paris in the actual room showcasing the Mona Lisa a full day before protesters threw a can of pumpkin soup at it. We were so quick to the story, we beat the story itself.

Of course in all seriousness, it was merely coincidence that out of all the times to visit the iconic museum, I ended up going the same weekend it made headlines off the back of the recent soup-throwing incident, the latest in what is quickly becoming an expansive series of dramatic stunts by environmental activists to gain exposure for their cause.

When I first heard about the story, I presumed the group behind it had been Just Stop Oil. After all, the environmental activism group have become notorious over the last year or two for this exact kind of thing, with the demonstration that first saw them in mainstream headlines literally involving protestors throwing tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. However, despite what I (and indeed many) presumed, the two women that threw soup at the Mona Lisa on Sunday were not from Just Stop Oil, but instead from the French environmental group Riposte Alimentaire (which translates to ‘Food Counterattack/Response’).

After throwing the soup and breaching the divider separating the public from the painting, the women stood facing the crowd and said, “What is more important? Art, or the right to healthy and sustainable food?”. Before museum staff could block them and evacuate the room, they added, “Your agricultural system is sick. Our farmers are dying at work”.

It would appear that while their methodology of gaining exposure may be controversial, this core concern of theirs is not an uncommon one. In our brief getaway to Paris (thank you Ryanair January sales), this was not even the first time discontent over the state of the French agricultural system cropped up (sorry for the pun). Grassroots farmer demonstrations have been bubbling across the country for a while now but reached a head in recent days – with hay and tractors used to block main highways, manure sprayed on buildings, and crates of produce farmers said had been cheaply imported dumped across roads.

The impact of this was seen in a small way during our trip when as a result, the hour and a half shuttle between the city and the airport ended up taking much closer to two and a half hours. This made little difference to us on the way in (as most of it was spent catching up on sleep anyways), but did indeed almost cause significant problems when, despite allowing for extra time on the day we were travelling back, the delays meant we arrived at the airport a lot closer to the gate closure time than one would normally prefer. Thankfully however, we could count on Ryanair to have delayed our flight for forty minutes… something that was only revealed after we had stressed and panicked our way through security, checking the time every few minutes to make sure we were still on track to make it.

But while these demonstrations by independent producers of meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables, etc – who form the backbone of the agricultural system in France, which is the EU’s biggest agricultural producer – have indeed been causing a lot of noise and impacting daily life enough to force government attention, it is hard to replicate the kind of headlines something like Sunday’s stunt generates. Whether or not these stunts are as successful in starting a fruitful conversation about the climate fight as they are in causing a big but temporary slew of headlines about the fact an artwork was targeted is another topic altogether, and a topic I have already written a column about previously. But nevertheless they do spark exposure, because it’s the kind of thing that shocks people.

People don’t expect things like famous artworks to be able to be easily targeted; hell, especially not the Mona Lisa, which has a storied history of attacks, attempted attacks, and even a successful robbery. And it is true to say that it still remained unharmed (bulletproof glass protects the painting, and in all these stories about environmental activists targeting artworks, so far it appears these stunts are always done in such a way that the artworks remain unharmed in the end), but people still don’t expect it to be so relatively easy to hurl pumpkin soup at the Mona Lisa – especially when they’re constantly updating their protective measures and someone already threw cake at it in 2022.

But as much as Sunday’s news suggests otherwise, I can also tell you anecdotally, that that may not be the case.

During our trip to the museum on Saturday, we popped into a café within the Louvre before we headed off to view the various artworks and statues. I got myself a (surprisingly-not-that-overpriced) coffee which remained in my hand as we queued, and although it would’ve made total sense for the lady who checked our tickets to tell me to dump it when she saw me holding it, she did not, and so (perhaps naively) thinking nothing of it, I headed into the museum with my friend and we pottered about checking out the exhibits and me taking the occasional sip of my Americano.

Eventually however, a couple of exhibits later, I caught the eye of a member of staff who told me I shouldn’t have been allowed bring the coffee in and asked me to throw it out (not on any of the artworks mind you). She even walked me to the bin to ensure I did, and on the way there (between my countless “I’m sorrys” and “I didn’t realise”-type utterances) she assuaged me that it was not a big deal on my part but that it is indeed forbidden and she was going to have a strict talk with her staff to tell them off and get them to be stricter. At the time, I felt very guilty about getting the nice lady at the ticket check-in into trouble, but after last Sunday’s antics, I think I’m in the clear.