Angry farmers deployed tractors to block main roads in and out of Paris on Monday in an escalating standoff that left the capital bracing for disruption and became the first major test for France’s new prime minister, Gabriel Attal.
Last week, Mr. Attal rushed to the agricultural regions of southern France and offered a series of rapid concessions as he tried to prevent widening roadside protests by food producers in all the countries. But these measures have failed to appease many farmers.
Their grievances are so varied that the protests represent an increasingly precarious moment for the government to defy easy solutions. Many farmers say foreign competition is unfair, wages are too low and government and European Union regulations have become stifling.
“I am determined to move forward,” Mr Attal said on Sunday after visiting farmers in Indre-et-Loire, in central France. But he also warned that “there are things that cannot change overnight.”
On Monday, hundreds of farmers from the Paris region and elsewhere in France converged on the French capital for what they called an indefinite “siege” announced by the country’s main agricultural unions. The action marks a major escalation after a week of protests and roadblocks. who continued to take over the country.
Major farmers’ unions said they did not intend to storm Paris or completely blockade the capital, but decided to block eight main roads within a radius of five to 40 kilometers around the capital, with similar barricades and traffic slowdowns expected elsewhere, including in cities like Lyon.
“Our goal is not to disturb the French or ruin their lives,” said Arnaud Rousseau, president of FNSEA, France’s largest agricultural union. declared on RTL radio. “Our goal is to put pressure on the government.”
Unions hope to organize a “military” precision operation, with safety measures to avoid fatal accidents like the one who killed two people last weekand with teams of farmers who moved in to maintain the barricades for days.
“We are increasing the pressure because we know that when we are far from Paris, the message is not heard,” said Mr. Rousseau.
Authorities warned residents to prepare for extremely disrupted traffic and deployed 15,000 police and gendarmes across France to secure the protests. President Emmanuel Macron’s government has so far been cautious in its response to the movement, which enjoys the support of more than 80% of the public, according to opinion polls.
“We are not here for a showdown,” said Gérald Darmanin, French Interior Minister. said Sunday.
Mr Darmanin said security forces would adopt a “defensive stance” to prevent farmers from crossing “red lines”, such as entering major cities, blocking airports or disrupting Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food marketjust south of Paris.
After meeting with farmers last week, Attal promised to simplify bureaucratic regulations, provide emergency aid more quickly and enforce laws intended to guarantee a living wage for farmers during price negotiations with farmers. retailers and distributors. He also said the government was abandoning plans to reduce state subsidies on diesel fuel used in trucks and other machinery.
But these measures have so far failed to quell farmers’ fury, which runs deep and varied. Wine growers, ranchers, grain growers and other producers have voiced numerous complaints about low wages, complex administrative hassles, environmental regulations, unfair foreign competition, and skyrocketing energy and fertilizer prices. caused by the war in Ukraine.
Other issues are more specific – from access to water to livestock disease outbreaks – and farmers have presented a long list of demands to the government, although some can only be addressed at EU level European.
In Agen, a town in southwest France where protests have been particularly intense, farmers setting out on a tedious 600-kilometer journey to Paris said they did not trust Mr. Attal, who rushed to the region last week and promised to put agriculture above. everything else.
“These are just words,” said Théophane de Flaujac, 28, who joined the protest from his family’s market gardening and grain farm, which he said is under increasing pressure as distributors opt for cheaper imports from Spain and elsewhere, without the same strict environmental rules as France. Last week, some demonstrators emptied trucks transporting foreign products.
“Before, he said he would put education at the center of everything,” Mr. de Flaujac said of Mr. Attal. “Now he says it’s agriculture. Afterwards, he will say it’s transportation, then health care.
The few dozen farmers leaving Agen on tractors displaying protest signs and French flags were members of the Rural Coordination, a radical right-wing, anti-European group that split from the FNSEA in 1991.
Last week, these farmers besieged Agen, dumping debris in front of symbolic buildings like the train station and the banks and social service offices that cater to farmers. Farmers also barricaded the gate of the graceful prefecture building with giant tractor tires, wooden pallets and bales of hay, and liberally doused it with liquid manure.
They are now targeting Paris, which they hoped to reach on Tuesday.
“Here, we did everything we could,” explains Karine Duc, 38, organic winemaker and co-president of the local branch of Rural Coordination. “We are going to Paris because we need answers and real measures.”
“This is our last battle,” she added, wearing her union’s uniform. mustard yellow hat. “Farmers feel that if we don’t succeed, we will be crushed. »
It is not yet clear how long the unions will be able to maintain a united front during the protests launched by a handful of farmers who rebelled against a local section of the FNSEA.
Rural Coordination wants to disrupt Rungis, the wholesale food market on which Paris depends for much of its food, while the FNSEA and other more traditional unions have ruled out this possibility. Taking no chances, the authorities have already stationed armored police vehicles in the market.
Édouard Lynch, a French historian specializing in agriculture, said the protests were influenced by union maneuvers ahead of elections to the Chamber of Agriculture, which are crucial in rural areas because they provide training and distribute agricultural subsidies. The rivalry itself added an unpredictable sting to the protests.
“Obviously you can see them competing now,” said Mr. Lynch, professor of contemporary French history at the University of Lyon 2. “Rural Coordination has been very effective, which is why the FNSEA must continue to insist. »
Farmers were also ramping up pressure ahead of the European Union summit which begins Thursday in Brussels and which Mr Macron is due to attend.
Some of their anger has been directed specifically at the European Union. Green Dealwhich aims to ensure the bloc meets its climate targets, but has left farmers across Europe feeling unfairly targeted by new environmental obligations.
Marc Fesneau, French Minister of Agriculture, declared on France 2 television that he would push to preserve an exemption from a European agreement obligation that large farms leave 4 percent of their arable land fallow or devote it to other “non-productive” elements, such as groves – to preserve biodiversity – if they want to receive crucial income. agricultural subsidies.