Snowballing protests by French farmers crept closer to Paris on Thursday, with tractors driving in convoys and blocking roads in many regions of the country. Their goal is to increase pressure on the government to take measures that protect the influential agricultural sector from foreign competition, red tape, rising costs, and poverty-levels of pay for struggling farmers.
The demonstrations, which include traffic-snarling drive-slows, barricades made of straw bales, and dramatic displays of agricultural waste outside government offices, have quickly become the first major crisis for newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who took office just two weeks ago. Attal was expected to bring new energy to President Emmanuel Macron’s administration.
Opposition leaders are capitalizing on the farmers’ protests to criticize Macron’s government ahead of the upcoming European elections in June. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally party is gaining popularity in the polls, attributed farmers’ economic woes to free-trade agreements, imports, and excessive bureaucracy.
According to Le Pen, “The worst enemies of farmers are to be found in this government.”
The drive-slow actions on Thursday morning included a major highway located west of Paris which is not only the capital but also the seat of power.
“We are gradually approaching Paris,” farmer David Lavenant reported in an interview with broadcaster BFM-TV.
Anticipating a larger impact, two agricultural unions have called on farmers to converge on highways leading into the city on Friday and block it off.
Farmers’ Protests in Europe Highlight Challenges in the Agricultural Sector
Highway operator Vinci has reported blockages and disruptions on multiple motorways due to ongoing farmers’ protests. The demonstrations have gained attention for their intensity, with one incident involving a supermarket being showered with a thick jet of pig slurry.
Farmers in Europe are facing a tough situation, dealing with high fixed costs and low prices. Benoit Mazure, a regional representative of the influential FNSEA agricultural union, highlighted the financial strain on farmers by saying, “You don’t need a drawing to imagine what our balance sheets look like.”
The protest leaders have expressed their determination and will closely scrutinize the measures expected from the government on Friday before deciding on their next steps. Arnaud Rousseau, the president of FNSEA, stated, “We expect urgent measures.”
Meanwhile, in Brussels, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has initiated a discussion panel to address the concerns raised by the protesters across the 27-nation bloc. This strategic dialogue aims to put the farming sector on a new footing and is gaining significance as the EU parliamentary elections approach.
Von der Leyen acknowledged the mounting challenges faced by farmers such as competition from abroad, overregulation at home, climate change, loss of biodiversity, and demographic decline. The fate of the farm sector is expected to be a hot-button issue during the campaigning period leading up to the elections.
Notably, farmers have staged protests in countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania in recent weeks.