French farmers protest stagnant revenues, unfair competition

PARIS — Rumbling two by two down the ring road around Paris, disgruntled French farmers drove their tractors to the capital Wednesday to protest stagnant revenues and what they say is unfair global competition.

The protest snarled traffic in the Paris area from daybreak to nightfall, as farmers from across the country attempted to use 1,000 tractors to block off access to Paris. It was among several recent farmer protests around Europe driven by growing concerns about maintaining European agricultural traditions and standards.

The tractors will remain parked on the highway circling the city until French President Emmanuel Macron agrees to meet with protesters, regional farmers’ union spokesperson Elisa Despiney told The Associated Press.

They could remain there for “hours, or maybe days,” she added.

By mid-morning, blue and green tractors bearing signs reading “Respond, Macron!” had advanced toward the southwestern edge of the city, taking up two lanes of the highway as police escorted them on motorcycles. They then stalled on the Paris ring road, where some protesters pitched tents and lit fires.

Protesters on foot inside the city, meanwhile, blocked off the Champs-Elysees and scattered hay across the famous Paris avenue. Police surrounded a group of farmers beneath the Arc de Triomphe, but the actions were peaceful.

The French presidency said no meeting between Macron and a delegation of farmers was planned at this stage.

However, Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume agreed to meet with a group of farmers Wednesday evening.

Farmers’ grievances include free trade agreements they say put them at a disadvantage, a government reform that failed to increase their revenues, and regulations they say hinder the sector’s performance.

Damien Greffin, president of the farmers’ union for the Paris region, placed the blame for farmers’ woes squarely on Macron, whom he called the “instrument of these divisions” in an interview with BFM TV. He called on Macron to rally French citizens to support agricultural workers.

Farmers have specifically criticized a law passed last year that intended to bolster French agriculture. They say they haven’t seen the increased revenues the government promised.

They have also condemned “agri-bashing,” or perceived public hostility toward farmers, particularly from those who criticize their use of pesticides and treatment of animals.

“We’d just like to work without people constantly pointing their finger at us about the plant protection products we use, about animal welfare,” said Antoine Benoist, a 44-year-old farmer from the Essonne region. “We are the first to be careful with our future, to think about our health, the health of our children, about animal welfare.”

The agriculture minister told Europe 1 radio Wednesday that he supports “their anger and their protest.”

He added that “enough is enough” of “permanent denigration” and the gulf between city residents and farmers.

Guillaume defended last year’s agriculture law, saying that a two-year experimentation phase is still under way and it will take time for farmers to see its benefits.

The main farmers’ union has organized actions throughout the country, including a similar tractor protest in Lyon, where about 600 farmers with some 120 tractors blockaded three entrances to the city.

Paris and Lyon police advised car drivers to stay off the affected roads.

The demonstrations in France follow similar protests in Germany on Tuesday, when some 10,000 farmers drove 5,000 tractors into Berlin to protest the German government’s agricultural policies. Farmers in the Netherlands clogged highways last month to decry what they said was unfair blame for nitrogen pollution in the country.

The new EU Commission president on Wednesday promised that farming would continue to be at the heart of the bloc.

Ursula von der Leyen told the EU parliament in Strasbourg, France, that agriculture, which long absorbed half the EU budget before slowly tapering off, “will remain a valued part of our culture and our future.”

She promised help for young farmers to boost their income, and insisted she would act against unfair global competition that European farmers increasingly fear will undercut domestic prices. She said that EU trading partners “must comply with EU environmental standards” if they want to import farm products.

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