France taken by surprise by scale and fury of grassroots demonstrations amid crisis in organic sector
Pierre Bretagne woke at 4am to feed the cows on his organic farm near the coastal town of Pornic in western France, then did something he had never dared to before.
He made a cardboard protest banner about the nightmare of French bureaucracy and went to cheer on a go-slow convoy of tractors warning that French farming and the rural way of life was facing collapse. Effigies of dead farmers dangled from nooses on tractor trailers as the convoy drove into the centre of the Brittany city of Rennes, beeping horns and waving banners. “Quality has a price,” read one.
“We’re fed up and exasperated,” says Bretagne, 38. “I love my job – I farm organically because it’s what I believe in and it’s the right thing ethically and in terms of health. In nine years of farming, I’ve never been on a protest; I’d rather be with my animals. But things are getting so difficult – we need decent prices that reflect not just the quality of our produce but the love we put into this job and into the countryside. This is a passion, a vocation, but we don’t get the recognition for it.”
The French government has been taken by surprise by the scale and fury of grassroots farmer demonstrations that have spread from the south-west across the whole country this week.
Bales of hay and tractors have been used to block main highways; manure has been sprayed on public buildings and supermarkets in the south-west. Crates of tomatoes, cabbages and cauliflowers that farmers said had been cheaply imported were dumped across roads. Although the protests follow other demonstrations by European farmers in countries including Germany and Romania, the French protests have a particularly urgent and local political flavour. France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer, has thousands of independent producers of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables and wine, who have a reputation for staging disruptive protests.
For several months, angry farmers had been turning street signs upside-down in villages across France in protest, while Marine Le Pen’s far-right party travelled the country to court rural voters.
But in Paris, Emmanuel Macron’s appointment earlier this month as the new prime minister, Gabriel Attal, instead focused on issues such as law and order and introducing trials of school uniform. Now the farming protests are Attal’s first significant headache, only five months before European parliament elections where the far right in France could make gains.
On Thursday, Breton fishers joined in; other trade union workers could follow if a social protest movement grows. After the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) citizen protest movement of 2018 and 2019, the government is so sensitive that it has directed riot police to act in moderation, rather than dismantle roadblocks. The demonstrators have many demands: including ensuring fairer prices for produce, continuing diesel tax-breaks for agricultural vehicles, an end to the extra French red tape layered on top of EU rules and immediate aid for struggling organic farmers.
Attal told farmers in the south-west on Friday: “We must tell all French citizens, if they can, to buy French produce.” He also promised to simplify red-tape, speed up the payment of subsidies for agricultural tractor fuel and drop plans to reduce tax breaks on agricultural diesel, as well as make access to water easier for farmers.
Polls show massive public support for the farmers’ protest – up to 90% – but farmers say that French consumers, struggling to make ends meet and bamboozled by supermarkets, do not always choose French produce in shops.
As organic farming faces an acute crisis in France, with sales dropping sharply, Bretagne says it has taken an emotional toll. “In human terms, it’s a catastrophe,” he says of the loneliness and isolation that some farmers have faced. From a farming family, his own father died “exhausted” at 60, having been unable to adapt to the changing industry. Bretagne earned only €600–€700 (£512-£597) a month, and sold much of his organic produce – beef, free-range chicken and sunflower products – as conventional rather than organic produce because the market was so hard.
“People see organic food as too expensive, but organic farmers are not getting the big margins on shop prices,” he says. “Where are those profits going? Who is lining their pockets?”
Bretagne’s wife’s salary as a support worker for adults with disabilities kept him and their two children afloat. But for him, farming was about being present in the countryside, keeping rural communities alive. He says: “The world is changing too fast for us. We don’t know where we are.”
The farming union, Coordination Rurale, which organised protests in Rennes on Thursday, gave its demonstrators yellow hats, an echo of the gilets jaunes.
Natacha Guillemet, 50, from Vouvant in the Vendée, says she farmed grass-fed Parthenais cattle for high-quality “red label” beef sold in top Paris butchers’ shops. “But at the end of the month, I line up the bills on the mantlepiece and decide which ones to pay because I can’t pay all of them,” she says.
“I’m counting stamps on envelopes, I’m counting euros. We are not in dairy, but we milk some cows to provide some milk for our children. The prices paid by intermediaries for our produce are too low and yet our costs are exploding: diesel, insurance. Consumers are getting charged a lot but we’re not seeing that deferential. There’s a lack of dignity.”
Sometimes, she says, it felt like working in a feudal system: “It’s as if we get the crumbs … We’re being taken for fools.”
Olivier Chemin, 54, an organic dairy farmer at Saint-Fraimbault-de-Prières in Mayenne, says: “This anger has been on slow-burn for years in France – there has been a distortion of competition, prices are low. I’ve been farming for 22 years. Organic dairy costs more to produce, yet prices are dropping.
“The demonstrations are about the future of French farming and rural life. It’s about how we feed ourselves, the quality of our food. It’s very seriously under threat from imports that don’t respect European or French rules. If the government doesn’t act, farming will collapse.”
Chemin says suicide rates are up among smaller farmers, some of whom earn just €500 a month. He says small-scale French farmers, who work more than 60 hours a week, spend hours each week filling out paperwork and dealing with red tape.
Alexis, 28, a cabbage farmer from Finistère in Brittany, says that like most, he stays up late after dinner each night, filling out forms. “It’s a question of survival: you need to be able to earn from your job.”
Mickaël, a fisher from Concarneau, joined the protests to stand up for “the rural world against the city”. He says that in France, protesting is the only way to be heard by politicians: “Sometimes you have to burn and break things to be understood.”
Source: The Guardian