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French farmers call off protests after new law tackling food imports is announced

Unions call for blockade of Paris to end after ministers unveil a raft of measures to protect the sector against 'unfair competition'.



France’s two main farming unions on Thursday called for blockades besieging Paris and other cities to be suspended after the government announced a clampdown on food imports.


“We have decided that at present, given everything that has been announced ... we need to change our methods of action, and so we are calling on our networks ... to suspend the blockades and embark on a new form of mobilisation,” said Arnaud Gaillot, head of the Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union, alongside Arnaud Rousseau, the FNSEA boss.


The two unions had joined forces to block all main entrances to Paris this week, while a smaller union, Coordination Rurale, mounted more militant action by seeking to storm Europe’s biggest fresh food market, Rungis, leading to 91 arrests.


The call to end the blockade came after Gabriel Attal, the prime minister, announced that France would protect its farmers from “the law of the jungle” by becoming self-reliant in food while tightening import controls.


With 1,300 tractors converging on the European Parliament in Brussels from across the Continent to protest against environmental regulations, Mr Attal said he wanted to “better recognise the farming profession”, “protect against unfair competition” and “give value back to our food”.


Emmanuel Macron was in Brussels to hold talks with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission chief, to discuss “the future of European agriculture” before an EU summit in the city on Thursday.


After the summit, Mr Macron told reporters that France had managed to persuade the EU to “impose stricter rules” for cereal and poultry imports, including from Ukraine.


Mr Macron called for “concrete and tangible simplification” of EU red tape “from the end of February”.


Speaking in France meanwhile, Mr Attal offered measures including an annual €150 million for livestock farmers and a ban on food imports treated with thiacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide already banned in France.


He added that the government would stop imposing stricter environmental regulations than the EU requires.


Pledging to protect agriculture “against the law of the jungle and unfair competition”, he also ruled out a trade deal with South American countries that farmers fear will undercut them.

He also vowed to ensure a clear Europe-wide definition of lab-grown meat.


Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, added that all major supermarkets will be audited for compliance with a law that is supposed to ensure fair prices for farmers’ produce.


And there will be a pause in France’s national plan for reducing pesticide use, said Marc Fesneau, the agriculture minister.


Mr Rousseau, of FNSEA, said that after “a botched and incomplete exercise” by Mr Attal last Friday, “we have been heard on a number of points, with tangible progress.


“But there are also things that are not there and that need to be clarified”, he added.


In particular, Mr Rousseau said he was “sensitive to the announcement of emergency measures concerning LNG, health and climate compensation, and the rapid payment of the latest subsidies” as part of the Common Agricultural Policy.


The president of France’s largest farmers’ union also welcomed Mr Attal’s pledge to move “in the direction of sovereignty, production and an agricultural policy that is self-sufficient”.


While reaffirming his “attachment to Europe”, Mr Rousseau went on to denounce its penchant for technocracy and deafness, with “decisions taken from afar that do not respect the work of farmers”.


“We obviously understand that European projects can take time, and that we can’t change the rules in a matter of days, but at this point in time, it is essential that the heads of state and government understand that if we want to protect Europe ... then we need to be able to do so with men and women who want to move forward,” said Mr Rousseau.


“This battle for our agriculture, for all of us, is intimately linked to the future of what is happening in Europe.”


At a time when the European Commission has proposed measures to limit imports of Ukrainian agricultural products, he said: “We have dithered for more than a year on the issue of agricultural imports, and we are now waiting for strong decisions that will protect the European domestic market.”


Mr Gaillot said: “From Monday onwards, we are going to get to work in the prefectures and ministries to work on all the points that have been announced, to see how they are being applied and how we can ensure that they are actually put into practice on the ground.”


He said union leaders are asking for a document summarising the announcements, as well “for this law [on agricultural policy] to be passed through parliament, and for the whole European part to be put into action”.


If there is no progress, he added: “We will not hesitate to join in a widespread protest movement.”


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