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How The EU’s ‘Betrayal’ Inspired French Farmers’ Fiery Revolt

Paris has come under siege several times over the centuries, but never quite like it did last week.



As January drew to a close, the French capital was enclosed by thousands of farmers with tractors and placards, who blocked major roads into the city, threatening to deprive it of food and supplies.


They were spurred to action by a spiralling crisis they claim threatens their livelihoods and France’s ability to feed itself, warning that the home of haute cuisine is at risk of losing its agricultural heartlands and history.


“We don’t have enough pay to feed our families,” one cereal farmer, Vincent Meunier, from Venere in Haute-Saône, told The Telegraph last week. “It’s not complicated. I earn almost nothing with my farm – from zero to €15,000 per year, not even the minimum wage. I have to work on the side.”


Low pay and a mountain of environmental regulations have made it harder to make a living off the land, they say, pointing to examples such as the need to maintain a certain level of fallow land to be eligible for subsidies.


“I find it challenging to integrate, understand, and apply all European directives, especially when France complicates them significantly,” says Olivier Coupery, who farms cereals, rapeseed and protein crops in Montfort-L’amaury, northern France.


“Twenty-seven years ago, I spent 15 minutes a day on administrative tasks; currently, it takes between one and two hours.”


Farmers have been further angered by a growing reliance on cheaper imported food as retailers try to keep prices down to hold on to cash-strapped shoppers.


Such imports include an influx of goods from Ukraine, which have been designated tax-free as part of a bid by the EU to help Ukraine’s economy as war with Russia rages.


“French farmers are rather disgusted by all these intra-European or extra-European imports and resent this form of economic betrayal,” says Mr Coupery, who adds he now has had to rely more on a second income from boarding horses to make ends meet.


Many French farmers now fear for the future of their industry.


“Thirty years ago we were one of the main agricultural countries in Europe. Now, it’s not quite the case,” says Stéphane Sanchez, director for the Greater Paris Basin branch of FNSEA, the main French farmers union.


The number of farms in France has fallen steadily over recent years, dropping by about 100,000, or 20pc, in the last decade, according to Agreste, the French agricultural statistics body.


With many farmers approaching retirement age, the industry is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit. Sanchez says its economic prospects mean there is little to offer younger generations.

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“Lots of people are leaving the industry, they’re not being replaced, and young sons and daughters of farmers are not becoming farmers,” says Paul Smith, professor of French history and politics at the University of Nottingham. “This poses all kinds of problems.”


As France’s domestic production has shrunk, its reliance on imported produce has increased. The country now imports about half of its fresh produce from abroad.


Soaring prices since the pandemic have worsened the situation. The French have long had a reputation for shopping locally and eating more fresh food than consumers in the US and UK, but steep rises in the price of groceries, which reached a record high of 15.9pc last year, have changed their habits.


“Inflation has had a tremendous impact,” says Pierre Chandon, a professor at INSEAD University in Paris. “Consumers have responded by buying cheaper products or going to discounters like Aldi and Lidl and even buying less.”


Unlike the UK, France has laws that dictate how much farmers are paid in their dealings with retailers. But it is understood that in the hope of keeping cash-strapped shoppers loyal, some retailers have responded by ramping up the amount of produce they source from other countries.


After almost a decade of consistent growth, the market share of French organic foods slowed dramatically in 2021, then dropped by the equivalent of €600m in 2022, according to the French agency for the development and promotion of organic agriculture.


“Produce is so expensive versus what it used to be, so people are either restraining how much they buy, they certainly are not buying the premium organic products as much as they used to,” adds Chandon.


At the same time, France’s biggest retailers have gone to war with big multinational food and drink companies such as Unilever and PepsiCo over prices.


Carrefour has said it will no longer stock PepsiCo brands such as Pepsi, Lay’s, Doritos, Cheetos and Quaker Oats at its stores across Europe in protest.


The retailer has ‘named and shamed’ food suppliers for shrinkflation - the practice of making products smaller without changing the price - on its shelves.


PepsiCo has accused Carrefour of “mischaracterising” the dispute, claiming it stopped sending deliveries when talks over prices fell apart.


The uproar from farmers comes at a bad time for France’s president Emanuel Macron, who is running a minority government and scrambling to shore up support against the far right National Rally party and his long standing rival Marine Le Pen.


“I think in spirit, [the National Rally] is very close to this idea that the global elite is profiting, the French people have unfair competition from imported fruits and vegetables, and we need to wrestle back control from Brussels,” says Chandon.


Last month the National Rally president Jordan Bardella visited fishermen angered by a month-long ban on operating at sea handed down by France’s highest administrative court on environmental grounds. While there, he railed against “the tyranny of NGOs, the rule of judges and Europe”.


Nottingham University’s Smith says the protests have opened up an opportunity for the National Rally to grow support outside of its traditional base. “Their hardcore support is the post industrial working class. Farmers in France in some regions are a bit left wing, but generally, they’ve been reasonably moderately conservative.”


It comes ahead of European elections this summer, where Macron risks losing more ground to the far right. “In France, [European elections] are never about Europe, they’re always about the government in power,” says Smith.


Support for Macron was already low before the farmers’ revolt, sinking to 27pc in April because of an unpopular attempt to reform the French pension system. “There’s such a deep residual discontent,” Smith adds. “I think a lot of people just feel he is this technocratic figure.”

 

Union bosses called off the blockades on Thursday after the new French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, announced a string of concessions, including a ban on importing foods treated with pesticides previously banned in France and millions of euros in financial aid.

 

Attal, who was appointed by Macron in January, also said there was “no question of France accepting” a trade deal with the so-called ‘Mercosur’ bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, which farmers argue would undermine them by paving the way for a flood of cheap imports.


Ministers had already cancelled a planned tax rise on tractor fuel in the hopes of avoiding unrest.


The concessions appear to have cooled tensions for now, but it may be some time before France’s farmers are placated.


As last week drew to a close, unrest spread to Brussels, where farmers threw eggs and stones at the European Parliament, while protests were announced in Spain, Portugal and Greece.


For many of France’s farmers, the political persuasion of policymakers is irrelevant.


“Macron or anyone else, we don’t care,” adds the FNSEA’s Sanchez. “We want to change the software. Agriculture in France is the root of the nation. If you lose the root of a nation, you lose the country.”


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