French farmers take to streets to save their fields

Traffic in Paris was held up by tractors driven by farmers protesting poor revenues and unfair professional conditions.

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    French farmers drive their tractors on the A6 motorway on their way to Paris, protesting against low farm incomes and growing criticism of agricultural practices [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]
    French farmers drive their tractors on the A6 motorway on their way to Paris, protesting against low farm incomes and growing criticism of agricultural practices [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

    Paris, France - The French capital's chic Champs Elysees had all the trappings of a country fair on Wednesday morning: Bales of straw, gumboots in puddles, and approximately 200 farmers, who came from all over France to protest unfair competition and crippling taxes.

    Some were bussed to Paris by their local unions, arriving at 6am to start the protest, but were suddenly joined by more than a thousand others who drove their tractors up to Paris, bringing a large section of the city's vital ring road to a halt from 11:30am.

    The National Federation of Farmers' Unions (FNSEA) and Young Farmers (Jeunes Agriculteurs) called this protest collectively to demand change on several fronts: The economic insecurity faced by many farmers, almost one third of whom earn less than 354 euros ($390) a month, what they deem as unfair competition with farmers from countries with less strict food quality norms, and the perceived defamation of French farmers by urban populations and politicians who curry favour with them - a phenomenon evocatively named "Agribashing".

    None of these phenomena is new: In response to previous expressions of concern about French agricultural revenues, the government passed the Estates General of Food (Egalim) law in October 2018, a law which aimed to rectify the "balance of commercial relations in the agricultural sector".

    One year after its ratification, however, this Egalim law is seen by many farmers to be ineffective. "[It] started to go in the right direction, and I do mean started, because it was a damp firework, that thing," explained Emmanuel, from the Ardennes region.

    Nicolas, a young farmer from France's north, was even more pessimistic: "There are things that were promised that were not kept, the first thing would be to apply them."

    By far the most weighty concern expressed by the farmers is that of unfair competition from countries with less strict agricultural regulations. In light of Macron's favourable stance towards both the CETA and - until recently - MERCOSUR free trade agreements with north and south American countries respectively, French farmers have a new list of worries: American GMO crops, cheap Canadian beef, and pesticide-sprayed Brazilian soybeans were all cited by protesters. Even within Europe other countries were criticised for lax regulations concerning less strict organic certification, pesticide use, or simply lower costs of operation.

    A consistent refrain was that cheaper and riskier foreign products are increasingly being preferred by French shoppers whose household food budgets are tighter than ever. "For the average French consumer, if they continue to undercut us like this," explained Pascal, an older French farmer from France's north. "Well then there'll be no more French farmers, and we'll import all the products from foreign countries, and there'll be no norms applied to those."

    Despite this intra-European competition, none of the farmers saw the idea of a "Frexit" as a worthwhile solution, calling instead for "more alliances over all domains" of European cooperation. Jean-Baptiste, a dairy farmer from France's east, said: "The most important thing will be to have the same agronomic references, and that we are all using the same products in order to have overall exactly the same programme on every crop."

    The protests lasted well into the afternoon - with 1086 tractors, by the interior ministry's count, threatening to block the ring road overnight - when Minister of Agriculture Didier Guillaume, opened talks with union leaders at 5:30pm. The talks appeared fruitful, with the minister afterwards citing his "support" for the movement and recognising their economic and reputational issues.

    The president of the FNSEA, Christiane Lambert, called a halt to the protest and announced the unions would meet with the prime minister on December 3 "to go over all the issues".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News