farmers france
Farmers of the CR86 union (Coordination rurale 86) unload a skip of garbage and debris in front of a supermarket in Loudun, western France, on February 21, 2024. French farmers have resumed their actions ahead of President Emmanuel Macron's visit to a high-tension Salon de l'Agriculture (Agriculture Fair) on February 24, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: France’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal sought to head off fresh farmers’ protests Wednesday, as they resumed direct action including dumping produce and blocking roads in pursuit of their demands.

Attal promised to elevate agriculture “to the status of a fundamental national interest”, outlining an agriculture bill designed to address farmers’ grievances.

Farmers staged crippling nationwide protests last month before their unions called for them to be suspended after the government promised reforms.

But this weekend’s national agriculture show - a major annual event for both the French public and its politicians - has become a de facto deadline for the government to meet farmers’ demands.

Even as Attal was speaking Wednesday, farmers were blockading a stretch of around 70 kilometres on a motorway in the south of the country.

On Tuesday, farmers had blocked a milk transport in protest against wholesale prices they say are too low, and set fire to tyres at roundabouts.

In some of the angriest protests in Europe, French farmers were out in force for more than a week in January, using tractors to block key roads into Paris and other major highways nationwide.

farmers france
A Farmers' union Jeunes Agriculteurs (JA) member deposits soil in front of the prefecture of Rennes, western France, on February 21, 2024, to demand real government announcements ahead of the Salon de l'Agriculture starting on February, 24 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Their grievances include burdensome environmental rules, the threat of cheap imports from outside the EU, and measures to address the low income many of them still suffer.

Fresh farmer protests also flared up in other European countries on Wednesday, with hundreds of tractors rolling into Madrid, and similar demonstrations taking place in Poland and Greece.

‘What farmers wanted’

In France Wednesday, Attal said a forthcoming law would lay out measures “in black and white”.

He said it was aimed at achieving “farming and food sovereignty” for France, and incorporating the dozens of promises already made to protesting farmers since the start of the crisis.

It would also create a new basis for negotiations between producers and wholesalers to improve the income of farmers, a key issue for the sector.

Already, payments under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have been made much faster than at this time last year, he said.

Several million euros have been paid out in emergency aid, notably to livestock farmers, he added.

France will also stop using its current national indicator for pesticide reduction - which farmers’ unions want to get rid of - and would switch to an EU indicator instead, he said.

“That is what farmers wanted,” he said, though the measure has drawn protests from environmental groups.

But the government would stand by its target of cutting pesticide use by 50 percent by 2030, said Attal.

The government will also make it easier for farmers to get temporary visas for foreign seasonal agriculture workers, and will continue to waive payroll taxes on almost all seasonal farm work, he added.

Tractors to Paris

The head of the Young Farmers (JA) union, Arnaud Gaillot, said after Attal’s conference that “some things are beginning to move”, but added that “what we need is actions”.

One livestock farmer, 25-year-old Romain Duteil in the central French Creuse region, said that Attal had made many promises.

“But how many will be kept in the end,” he asked, saying “there has to be a real impacts on our bank accounts”.

The FNSEA and the Young Farmers, two of France’s major agriculture unions, have said they will lead a column of tractors to the agriculture show in Paris Friday ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit.

Macron will visit the Salon de l’Agriculture on Saturday, as is traditional for France’s presidents.

Farmers’ unions have made it clear they want ironclad assurances that their grievances are being addressed before then.

“Our dear president has not understood the message we sent him,” said Gregoire Bouilliant, a cereal farmer in the northwestern Vexin region.

“Unfortunately we’re going to have issue a reminder in a few days’ time,” he said.