France’s new prime minister showered promises of help on angry farmers Tuesday, from emergency cash aid to controls on imported food, in hopes that cools a protest movement that has seen tractors shut down highways across France and inspired similar actions around Europe.
Farmers seeking better pay, fewer constraints and lower costs are camped out on hay-strewn highways and encircling Paris, posing the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Gabriel Attal since his appointment less than a month ago. He sought to assuage their concerns in a sweeping policy speech Tuesday at the National Assembly.
“We need to listen to the farmers, who are working and are worried about their future and their livelihood,” Attal said.
“The goal is clear: guaranteeing fair competition, especially so that regulations that are being applied to (French) farmers are also respected by foreign products,” he said. Protection against cheap imports is one of the protesters’ main demands.
Attal promised emergency aid to struggling wine prodcuers and quick payments of EU subsidies to others. He also said food retailers who don’t comply with a law meant to ensure a fair share of revenues for farmers will be fined, starting immediately.
After several days of escalating protests, French farmers spent the night at barricades Monday to Tuesday, to press their case that growing and rearing food has become too difficult and not sufficiently lucrative.
Protesters rejected pro-agriculture measures that Attal announced last week as insufficient. They have threatened to move in on the capital, host of the Summer Olympics in six months, if their demands aren’t met. Protesters came prepared for an extended battle, with tents and reserves of food and water.
The government announced a deployment of 15,000 police officers, mostly in the Paris region, to stop any effort by the protesters to enter the capital. Officers and armored vehicles also were stationed at the Parisian hub for fresh food supplies, the Rungis market.
Farmers who slept on a highway near the Disneyland theme park east of Paris were skeptical that the government would do enough to help. They grilled sausages, set up a television to watch the prime minister’s speech and hung an effigy of a dying farmer from a bridge.
Stéphane Chopin, an organic Charolais beef farmer from near Château-Thierry, northeast of Paris, described the cost and bureaucratic burden of trying to maintain organic methods while competing with food from other countries with lower labor and living costs.
“We have been trying make an effort for local produce, for the environment, for 20 years. We are trying, we are trying … now we say stop,” he said.
In neighboring Belgium, a delegation from the Belgian Young Farmers association is blocking the main highway between Paris and Brussels just outside the Belgian capital for a third day in a row. Like their fellow farmers from across the European Union, they demand less bureaucracy and more money for their produce.
Farmers in Spain are also demonstrating. In Italy, farmers gathered for the third day Tuesday with their tractors at a highway exit near Rome to protest increased production costs, higher taxation and lower incomes, and cuts to diesel benefits.
The movement in France is another manifestation of a global food crisis worsened by Russia’s nearly two-year full-scale war in Ukraine, a major food producer.
French farmers assert that higher prices for fertilizer, energy and other inputs for growing crops and feeding livestock have eaten into their incomes.
Protesters also argue that France’s massively subsidized farming sector is over-regulated and hurt by food imports from countries where agricultural producers face lower costs and fewer constraints.
French President Emmanuel Macron will meet on Thursday in Brussels with the European Commission chief to discuss the farming crisis.
But Macron defended the EU farm policy overall as the only way to keep European agriculture alive in a globalized economy.
“Without a common agricultural policy (in the EU), our farmers wouldn’t have revenue. Many of them would not be able to survive,” Macron said Tuesday during a trip to Sweden.
John Leicester in Paris, Helena Alves in Jossigny, Raf Casert in Halle, Belgium, and Gianfranco Stara in Orte, Italy in contributed to this report.