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France: Farmer protests edge closer to Paris

January 25, 2024

French farmers have blocked roads and dumped produce as protests over rising costs and red tape move closer to Paris. It's a first big challenge for new prime minister Gabriel Attal, with the far-right watching closely.

French farmers unload a truck carrying frozen vegetables from Belgium as they block the a roundabout on the Nationale 7 (N7) route accessing the Montelimar-Sud tollgate of the A7 highway near Montelimar, southern France, during an action by farmers to protest over taxation and declining income, on January 24, 2024.
Farmers dumped frozen vegetables and other materials on public roads, in this case near Montelimar in southern FranceImage: Sylvain Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Vegetables were strewn across highways, a local prefecture building was sprayed with manure, and tractors blocked traffic outside major French cities on Thursday as farmers took to the barricades — literal ones made of bales of hay — in protest at cheap imports, rising costs and red tape.

Crates of tomatoes, cabbages and cauliflowers that farmers said had been imported from neighboring countries were dumped on the A7 highway linking Marseille and Lyon, while dozens of tractors led a "go-slow" during rush-hour on the southwestern edge of Paris.

"We are getting progressively closer to Paris," one farmer told broadcaster BFM TV.

Late on Wednesday night, the powerful FNSEA farmers' union handed the government a list of 100 demands calling for greater protection for France's influential agricultural sector in the face of cheap foreign competition and supposedly over-burdening bureaucracy.

The union also called for continued diesel tax-breaks for agricultural vehicles, the immediate payment of EU agricultural subsidies, guarantees on insurance payouts related to health and climate, and aid for winemakers and organic farmers.

Angry farmers in France cause nationwide chaos

Gabriel Attal's first major challenge

The farmer protests, now in the second week after breaking out in the south-west of the country in response to a fuel tax rise, are reminiscent of those which have taken place in Germany and much of western Europe recently and represent a first major challenge for France's new prime minister, Gabriel Attal.

Appointed two weeks ago by President Emmanuel Macron in the hope of injecting new vigor into his administration, the 34-year-old on Thursday convened his economy, environment and agriculture ministers with the aim of announcing concrete proposals on Friday.

The ministers discussed "farming issues, especially off-road diesel, animal husbandry and pay," said Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau's office.

The French government has already postponed a draft farming law meant to help more people become farmers, saying it first plans to strengthen some measures and ease some restrictive regulations.

A farmer shows a banner on his tractor reading '400 euros per month, for 70 hours per week, Macron comes to work on the farm' as farmers block the A7 highway with their tractors
'400 euros a month for 70 hours a week — Macron comes to work on the farm,' this placard saysImage: Sylvain Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Marine Le Pen's far-right circling

With European Parliament elections approaching in June, President Macron is wary that farmers are a growing constituency for the far right, which has accused the government of backing European regulations that hurt farmers, such as rules on mandatory fallow land.

"Emmanuel Macron addresses farmers with a hand on the shoulder and then knifes them in the back in Brussels," said Marine Le Pen, whose far-right National Rally party is polling strongly.

"The farmers' worst enemies can be found in this government", she said.

Meanwhile in Brussels, Euroepan Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has opened a so-called strategic dialogue to try to put farming on a new footing, hoping to take into account complaints raised by protesters around the 27-nation bloc, including in Germany, Romania and Poland.

"We all agree that the challenges are mounting," she said, "be it competition from abroad, overregulation at home, climate change, the loss of biodiversity, or demographic decline, just to name a few."

'If people want quality food, they have to pay for it'

Back in France, protests are continuing, with hundreds of tractors driving through Rennes and Nantes in the west of the country on Thursday, blasting horns, brandishing mock gallows and setting off smoke bombs.

We're totally fed up because we can no longer make a living from our profession," Nathalie Posseme, a local union official, told the French AFP news agency.

"If people want quality food, they're going to have to pay for it," she said.

mf/msh (AFP, Reuters)