Behind European Farmers Protests: Anger, Hardship and No Easy Answers

PARIS — French cereal grower Jerome Regnault has spent years explaining his profession, as co-founder of a nonprofit to educate consumers about agriculture, and as a local lawmaker for the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris. 

But last week, he chose to communicate another way — firing up his tractor to join a spreading farmers’ protest in France and across the European Union. 

“It’s been several years since government announcements haven’t been followed,” Regnault said, as he drove to a roadblock set up by farmers Monday in the Yvelines department west of the French capital. “In farming, we like to weigh, measure, count. So, it’s over with announcements.” 

Simmering discontent among European growers has exploded into protests and blockages of ports and roads in recent months, hopscotching from Germany and Poland to touch the Netherlands, Romania, Greece, Spain and Belgium — and now agricultural heavyweight France.

The grievances are varied, but many touch on complicated bureaucracy, soaring costs of inputs like fertilizer and fuel, competition from overseas and European environmental regulations that many say threaten their business. 

Speaking to parliament on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal vowed to resolve the standoff, and promised fresh financial support to farmers. From Sweden, French President Emmanuel Macron added more concessions, calling for ending select food imports from Ukraine and an end to talks on a trade deal with countries in a Latin American trade bloc known as Mercosur. 

Yet there is no sign of the protest movement fading. Farmers in Brittany dumped 700 tons of soil on a highway Tuesday, in a bid, they said, to “sow a prairie.” Around the southern city of Toulouse, others tried to block access to a local airport. Meanwhile, Paris-area protesters promised to slowly tighten a blockade on eight main arteries around the capital, with some aiming to block the wholesale market Rungis that supplies the city’s food. 

The discontent clashes with national values that have long embraced farming and rural life. Every year, French presidents and political candidates make an obligatory stop at the Paris agricultural fair to pat cows, chat with growers and snack on sausages.

Yet many of France’s small- and medium-sized farmers are becoming poorer by the year. Over half a century, the number of farms has plummeted, from 1.5 million to about 456,000 today. Roughly one-quarter of growers lives under the poverty line, and suicide rates are high, according to French statistical agency INSEE. 

Heading toward a wall 

Regnault, whose farm is located on the outskirts of Paris and who took over the business from his father, pointed to a raft of red tape and expenses, and faulted both French and EU bureaucracy. 

Among other demands, he wants more subsidies to farmers and an end to diesel taxes along with international trade agreements that he said penalize French agriculture. Regnault said he uses pesticides judiciously and tries to follow green farming practices as long as they don’t undermine his business. 

“The Green Deal and the Farm to Fork seem wonderful, but they harm agricultural productivity,” said Regnault, referring to two major EU measures aimed at promoting healthy and environmentally friendly food production and slashing carbon emissions.

Polls show a large majority of French support the protest movement. And a recent CSA survey found more respondents believe French farmers do a better job of protecting nature than environmentalists. 

Nadine Lauverjat, coordinator for French environmental group Generations Futures, sided with the farmers on ending major international trade deals like with Mercosur, but rejected efforts to soften environmental regulations that she argued ultimately helped farmers as well. 

“We’re heading towards a wall,” she said of the standoff, “and so are the farmers.” 

Marco Contiero, who heads agricultural policy for environmental group Greenpeace in Brussels, outlined a range of changes that he said are needed, and would benefit both the bloc’s farmers and environment. Among them: ensuring EU farm subsidies target small- and medium-sized growers rather than large ones, incorporating costs like pollution in the price of food, and cutting profits earned by fertilizer companies, retailers and others. 

Rather than being too stringent, Contiero said, many of the EU’s Green Deal environmental regulations have not been enforced or are not binding. 

“The science is unequivocal — we have to do things differently,” Contiero said of the growing environmental problems facing Europe, from degraded land to polluted water and climate change. “The problem for farmers is that we cannot ask them to do things better if the current subsidy system keeps benefitting the biggest ones.” 

Here and elsewhere, right-wing parties have capitalized on the farmers’ anger and the mounting anti-EU and anti-globalization sentiments.

“What we’re paying today is the punitive ecology by the crazy environmentalists from Brussels,” Laurent Jacobelli, spokesman for France’s far-right National Rally party, told France-Info radio Tuesday. 

“There is a large chunk of French farmers who don’t believe in the government anymore,” said farmer Regnault.

Nor, he added, do they believe in the mainstream right and left parties. 

“They’ll be tempted to vote for the far right,” he said, “Which would be unfortunate.”  

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