France Tries to Contain Protests by Farmers as Outrage Spreads

France Tries to Contain Protests by Farmers as Outrage Spreads

Protests by farmers angered by complex regulations, administrative hassles and low wages spread across France on Friday, blocking several highways, snarling traffic for miles and forcing the country’s new prime minister to tear up his schedule and head to a remote farm in the region where the demonstrations began.

Gabriel Attal, the 34-year-old prime minister who took office this month, arrived late in the afternoon in southwestern France to try to ease the tension.

“Without our farmers, we are no longer France,” he declared at a cattle farm in Montastruc-de-Salies, in the Haute-Garonne region. He appeared intent on convincing his rural audience that its angry message had been received, even as some tractor convoys inched closer to Paris.

Mr. Attal said that the government would scrap plans to reduce state subsidies on the diesel fuel used in trucks and other farming machinery, and he promised that it would significantly cut back the time-consuming bureaucratic regulations farmers must follow. For example, 14 different regulations on hedges would be merged into one.

“Our farmers want to be in their fields, not in front of their screens,” Mr. Attal said, his notes resting on a bale of hay.

“We are going to fight with you,” he added. “We are going to fight for you.”

Mr. Attal also announced that the authorities would strictly enforce laws meant to guarantee a living wage for farmers in price negotiations with retailers and distributors. He said emergency aid would arrive faster, including for those whose cattle are sickened. At the same time, President Emmanuel Macron would push for exemptions from some new European Union rules.

Farmers’ reactions to Mr. Attal’s announcements were mixed. Some announced locally that they would lift their barricades, but two of the main national unions called for the protests to continue.

“There are many demands that the prime minister did not respond to,” Arnaud Rousseau, the head of one of the unions, told TF1 television. “What was said tonight does not calm the anger.”

The unions estimated on Friday that more than 70,000 people were protesting around the country, with over 40,000 tractors forming long convoys on some of France’s main arteries.

The protests closed stretches of highway, including a road from France into Spain. “Our end = your hunger,” one banner proclaimed.

Hay burned here and there, manure was dumped outside the City Hall in Nice, and in the southwestern town of Agen, a wild boar was hung outside a labor inspection office. Police officers made no move to remove barriers or stop the protests, despite the fact that Mr. Macron recently promised a France of “order” and “respect.”

Mr. Macron, who is on an official visit to India, has said little about the protests so far.

Pressed in a TV interview on Thursday evening, Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said he felt a “great compassion” for the farmers, adding, “One does not respond to suffering by sending in the riot police.”

In the past, Mr. Darmanin has shown little hesitation in sending the riot police to quash protests of various kinds, leading to clashes with environmental activists and with young people, mainly ethnic minorities, incensed by the police shooting last summer of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent.

“I am letting them do this,” Mr. Darmanin said of the farmers, even though blocking highways is illegal.

But in France, farmers hold a sacred place, even as they have dwindled to less than 2 percent of French workers. They are seen as custodians of “terroir,” an emotion-laden French word for the land that refers to its special characteristics, its soil, its climate and humans’ unique, enduring relationship with it.

The government appears determined, at least for now, to avoid a violent confrontation that could trigger a national uproar. Polls show that more than 80 percent of French people support the farmers. The last thing the government wants, after a reshuffling of the cabinet this month, is a major upheaval, like the Yellow Vest protest movement that began in 2018.

The protests have quickly become a critical test of Mr. Attal — and of Mr. Macron’s decision to appoint him. If Mr. Attal cannot stop the demonstrations without sending in the riot police, he may find that his youthful appeal — and his popularity — wane.

“Farmers are really determined,” said Jérémy Bazaillacq, 31, a dairy farmer near the southwestern town of Pau and a member of the Jeunes Agriculteurs, a young farmers’ union.

“The protests will last as long as they need to,” said Mr. Bazaillacq, who has been stationed at the barricades near Pau since Tuesday.

Mr. Bazaillacq, one of three partners on a farm of about 200 cows, said the reasons for the outrage were varied. But many farmers are fed up with a maze of administrative tasks that take “far too much time,” he said.

“It’s 60 hours per month of paperwork,” Mr. Bazaillacq said. Many farmers struggle to make ends meet, he added. Official statistics from 2022 show that about a quarter of French farmers live below the poverty line.

France’s farm sector received some $10 billion from the European Union last year, the largest single share of a $58.3 billion agricultural budget that is designed to raise production, guarantee livelihoods in rural areas and stabilize food prices for European consumers.

But European agricultural policy changed in 2023 in ways that reflect the push for a green, carbon-neutral European economy. A new obligation to leave 4 percent of arable land fallow to ensure the preservation of biodiversity has enraged farmers.

The country’s farmers also complain that France still imports too much food from countries like Brazil and New Zealand, which do not have the same stringent environmental practices. Those countries also have cheaper production costs that lower supermarket prices, they argue.

“When we hear that they let in milk from New Zealand, that’s inconceivable to us,” Mr. Bazaillacq said.

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