French farmers up pressure on government

Protests spread across rural regions
calendar icon 23 January 2024
clock icon 3 minute read

French farmers in tractors and trucks expanded their roadblocks on Tuesday, resulting in numerous traffic jams as well as one fatal accident, as unions urged the government to ease its push for lower consumer prices and reduce environmental regulations, reported Reuters.

"We won't lift the roadblocks as long as the prime minister does not make very concrete announcements ... The time of talking is over, action is needed", said Arnaud Gaillot, head of the Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union.

The growing outrage, which has spilled over from similar agricultural unrest in neighbouring countries, comes as campaigning for EU elections gains pace, and is the first major challenge for President Emmanuel Macron's new prime minister, Gabriel Attal.

Hours after union officials met Attal on Monday evening, new convoys of tractors set out in the night to block roads, including the A7 motorway in southern France.

"Fed up with environment taxes" read a slogan sprayed in pink on a slurry tank blocking the highway in a picture published by French media.

"We're prepared for anything, we've got nothing to lose," said Josep Perez, a protester interviewed by BFM TV at another roadblock in the southwestern fruit-growing region around Agen.

Police said one woman was killed and two others were heavily injured as a car ran into a roadblock in the southwestern Ariege region.

France's Agriculture Minister cancelled his trip to a EU ministers' meeting in Brussels to travel to the site.

'Complete contradiction'

Farming policy has always been a sensitive issue in France, the European Union's biggest agricultural producer, where thousands of independent producers of meat, dairy, wine and other produce have a record of staging disruptive protests.

Macron is wary of farmers' growing support for the far right ahead of the European Parliament elections in June with Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National party shown as leading in the polls.

Earlier this week, the government hit the pause button on a planned agriculture bill, saying it first wanted to hear input from farming representatives. But after first talks with union officials on Monday evening yielded no results, farmers across the country said they would stage more protests this week.

The farming lobby says the outrage is mainly fuelled by the government's recent efforts - spearheaded by Finance and Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire - to fight inflation, urging retailers and food giants to cut consumer prices.

Patrick Benezit, the head of the FNB cattle farmer union, on Tuesday told a news conference the resulting pressure on suppliers is being passed on to farmers, forcing some to sell below real costs, which would go against a law aimed at guaranteeing fair prices.

"The government should enforce the law rather than having a finance and economy minister actively encouraging to breach it", he said when asked what precisely the government should do now to ease the tensions.

Benezit also slammed the government for what he called "generalised political contradiction" caused by the EU's recent push for stricter environment regulation while at the same time pursuing free trade deals like the MERCOSUR agreement with Latin America.

"They can't ask farmers to comply with extremely strict regulations while allowing anything and everything onto the market", he said.

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