French farmers' protests to resume 'within days'

Head of French farmers' union says his members believe a €600 million government aid package and deal to raise milk prices does not go far enough

By David Chazan in Paris

All last week, residents and holiday-makers faced chaos as French farmers blocked motorways with tractors, closed off tourist sites and unleashed pigs in supermarkets.

Now trouble is set to resume “within days”, despite promises to remove the barricades at the start of the annual holiday rush, the main farmers’ union leader told The Telegraph.

He says his members think a €600 million government aid package and a deal to raise milk prices by a few centimes a litre does not go far enough.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Xavier Beulin, leader of the FNSEA, said in an interview at a chic Paris café off the Champs-Elysées. “But you can’t rule out there will be a few blockades this week. It’s unfortunate, I know, but farmers in some places are still angry.”

Beef, pork and dairy farmers imposed the blockades, saying up to 25,000 meat and dairy farms, 10 per cent of the total, are threatened with bankruptcy as farmers face a slew of crises.

Long cushioned from market realities by EU subsidies, they have struggled to cope as Brussels has begun phasing out price guarantees.

France, Europe’s largest farm producer, remains the biggest single beneficiary of the EU Common Agricultural Policy, but the situation has been aggravated by drought conditions in many parts of the country caused by unusually hot weather.

Then, farmers say a price war between supermarkets has driven prices so far down many can no longer cover their costs.

And that is on top of the biggest shock of all – a change in diet, as even the steak-loving French have less appetite for meat as they turn to healthier options.

Last week farmers prevented thousands of visitors from reaching Mont St Michel, the country’s most popular tourist spot outside Paris. They sealed off the ferry port of Caen in Normandy and France’s second city, Lyon, dumped manure outside public buildings and blocked deliveries to supermarkets.

The pigs take a rest in the supermarket (Photoshot)

Protests have been a Gallic speciality for centuries, but this summer ferry workers, taxi drivers and tobacconists have all taken to the streets, safe in the knowledge that the unpopular Socialist president, François Hollande, and his government are particularly vulnerable to their demands.

Mr Beulin regretted farmers had been “obliged” to disrupt holidays. “I’m sorry we had to take these actions to make our voices heard, but if we hadn’t, no one would have listened,” he said.

Particular trouble-spots this week are likely to be areas bordering on Germany and Spain, where farmers are incensed that “they can’t compete with cheaper imports from those countries,” he added.

Firefighters work to extiguish bales of straw set alite by farmers demonstrating at a blockade in Lyon (AFP)

But nowhere is safe, amid widespread rejection of the aid package.

The government brokered the deal between the heads of retail chains and farmers’ leaders to raise milk prices after hours of acrimonious wrangling.

Many farmers are demanding fundamental reform rather than what they say is short-term tokenism, and also claim a similar deal to push up food prices a month ago was ignored by supermarkets.

The supermarkets say they stuck to the agreement but the additional money shelled out by consumers has been pocketed by middlemen and food processing companies.

Mr Beulin, 57, is an unlikely figure to head a peasants’ revolt. No leftist firebrand, he is at ease in a designer suit, carries an iPad in a stylish leather case, wears a Breitling watch and heads a agribusiness empire with a turnover of billions of pounds, although he left school at 17.

He also still owns a family farm with his brother and two cousins in the central Loiret region.

He said broader reforms were needed to help wean farmers off subsidies, complaining that farm labour costs were more than 30 per higher in France than in Germany, largely because of social security contributions and over-regulation.

There, the former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reduced unemployment benefits, introduced new work incentives and persuaded unions to accept lower wage increases than in other European countries. The changes were unpopular, but he succeeded in lowering unemployment and revitalising the economy.

“In France the hourly cost of farm labour is 20 euros,” he said. “It’s only 14 euros in Germany.”

A demand for lower wages may be unusual in a protest leader, but then Mr Beulin’s is a different sort of union.

“I believe in entrepreneurship and initiative,” he said. “The French Left has lost the plot. The old political divisions between Left and Right no longer mean much.”

France cherishes its small, family-based farms, and shuns mass production. But that defies the economies of scale, and the system’s viability is increasingly being questioned.

Mr Beulin believes the model can be maintained. “Size isn’t always the biggest factor,” he said. “Small farms can share equipment and facilities and still remain independent.”

But it is questionable how much longer the government can afford even the help it does give, with a huge public debt of 97.5 per cent of GDP, and little prospect of balancing its books in the foreseeable future.

Τελευταία τροποποίηση στις Παρασκευή, 14/06/2013 - 23:54