French farmer protests pose early test for Macron’s new government

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French farmers have begun blocking motorways and targeting government buildings to express anger over rising costs and what they call suffocating red tape at both a national and EU level.

“To attain our objectives, violence is not the answer, but some farmers have simply had enough,” said Arnaud Rousseau, head of the country’s biggest farmers’ union, FNSEA, on France Inter radio on Monday. He promised further demonstrations until farmers’ concerns were addressed. 

“Starting today, during the whole week and for as long as necessary, a certain number of actions will be organised.” 

The protests are the first crisis for Gabriel Attal, who President Emmanuel Macron appointed prime minister two weeks ago. He was set to meet Rousseau on Monday, with the latter promising to issue “clear demands so we can get clear answers”.

The government has said for months it would introduce legislation to help farmers but on Sunday pushed back the proposal for a few weeks, saying it wanted to improve it. 

The movement in France, the biggest agricultural producer in the EU and a main recipient of the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies, comes as similar protests have occurred in recent weeks in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.

Although farmers’ rage has sometimes been touched off by national measures such as a fuel tax in Germany, there is also a broad consensus against the EU’s “farm to fork” strategy that aims to reduce pesticide use and impose new rules to take climate change into account in farming practices. 

In France, farmers also cite government red tape, competition from cheap imports and water shortages among their grievances. Many say they are being squeezed by higher costs for diesel for their tractors, gas and electricity and fertiliser, while struggling to pass these on to customers — food manufacturers and retailers — amid depressed wholesale prices. 

On Monday farmers in a convoy of tractors and trucks near Perpignan in south-west France dumped rocks and gravel to block motorway exits, while others blocked roads headed to the Golfech nuclear plant north of Toulouse. The actions follow similar measures over the weekend when motorways and roads near Toulouse were shut down. 

Exacerbating the protests in the south-west have been farmers’ struggles with a disease hitting cattle and criticism that the government has been slow to help.

Arnaud Gaillot, head of the young farmers’ union, warned that the government would find it hard to resolve the crisis because there were so many issues driving farmers’ anger. “There is such a broad malaise and misunderstanding among farmers that the issue will be complex for Attal to handle,” he said on France 2. “If the government is not responsive, the protests will spread.” 

The political risks for Attal are considerable. The far-right Rassemblement National has sought to fan the flames of rural anger because it sees the green backlash as a vote winner in June’s European parliament elections. 

RN leader Jordan Bardella vowed on Sunday to stand by farmers on a visit to the Gironde region near Bordeaux. He likened the protests to “a cry from the French people who do not want their way of life to die” and slammed the EU farm-to-fork strategy and trade agreements signed by the bloc as contributing to the decline of French farming.

“We must support this movement which is spreading throughout Europe,” he said to a group of farmers assembled in a barn. “It’s Brussels who decides and you who suffer.”

Additional reporting by Adrienne Klasa

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