Fuming French farmers pile pressure on Paris

Fuming French farmers pile pressure on Paris

Farmers have been blocking motorways across France
Farmers have been blocking motorways across France. Photo: Frederick FLORIN / AFP/File
Source: AFP

France's government sought on Thursday to find answers to farmers blocking motorways and demonstrating at public buildings across the country, after a fuel tax rise ignited long-standing resentments.

It is a first crisis for recently installed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who summoned his economy, environment and agriculture ministers to decide on aid measures and fend off a possible blockade of the capital.

With Paris under pressure to defuse tensions months before European Parliament elections, government sources told AFP that initial responses to rural unions' demands could be announced on Thursday or Friday.

Farmers were out in force on a number of motorways, ring roads and roundabouts on Thursday, two days after a farmer and her daughter died at a roadblock.

"We're caught between rising costs and falling prices for our produce," said Dominique Kretz, a farmer among several hundred blocking the M35 motorway near the eastern city of Strasbourg.

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Some routes were blocked around Avignon and Marseille in the south, according to traffic information website Bison Fute.

And in the west, there was a tractors go-slow around the Bordeaux ring road.

'Big risk'

Farmers say they are squeezed from multiple directions, caught between supermarket buyers and the food industry crushing their margins, and environmental rules on issues like leaving land fallow and pesticide use.

The last straw for many was the government's decision to phase out by 2030 a tax break on diesel fuel for farm machinery.

A new diesel tax rebate could be one of the government's forthcoming measures, while some MPs also want minimum prices introduced for farm produce.

Farmers say they are squeezed from multiple directions
Farmers say they are squeezed from multiple directions. Photo: Damien MEYER / AFP/File
Source: AFP

"It would be a big risk (for the government) to wait until Friday to announce something," warned Karine Duc, co-president of the Coordination Rurale union in the western department of Lot-et-Garonne.

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The powerful FNSEA farmers' union demanded late on Wednesday "immediate answers on pay", urgent aid for "sectors worst hit by the crisis" and, in the long term, "a plan to reduce regulations".

"We are talking about several hundred million euros," FNSEA chief Arnaud Rousseau told AFP.

The protests have made for a rare alliance between rival farmers' unions.

'Division and polarisation'

President Emmanuel Macron's government is at pains to avoid a repeat of the massive 2018-19 "yellow vests" protests -- also triggered by a rise in diesel prices.

It has kept a nervous eye on recent mass turnouts by farmers in Germany, Poland and the Netherlands that have also raised concern in Brussels.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged on Thursday "increasing division and polarisation" in the agri-food sector.

"We all have the same sense of urgency that things have to improve," she added at the start of European Union talks designed to balance farmers' complaints with the bloc's need to make a green transition.

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In Rennes, the capital of Brittany, fishermen joined farmers protesting on Thursday outside the regional administration.

Most fishing has been banned for a month along much of France's Atlantic coast in a bid to protect dolphins and porpoises, at an estimated cost of tens of millions of euros (dollars) to the 450 ships affected.

In a bid to keep tensions low, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Wednesday ordered local authorities to exercise "restraint" and deploy police only as a "last resort".

Union representatives in Bordeaux said on Thursday their protest would be "more respectful" than Wednesday's in nearby Agen, when tyres and straw were set alight outside the regional administration.

Speaking at a motorway blockade, FNSEA head Rousseau said "at this stage" there were no plans to blockade Paris.

But Regis Desmureaux, his deputy for the Oise department north of the capital, told broadcaster BFMTV: "We're moving forward about 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) a day and we'll definitely be at the doorstep of Paris on Friday or Saturday."

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Tractor-driving farmers staged another go-slow early on Thursday on a major road running west of the capital.

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Source: AFP

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