French farmers: Politicians must help us with drought and climate crisis

From cheese trivia to wine tastings and 'the most beautiful cow' competitions - and of course visits from politicians - the Salon de l'Agriculture is France's biggest and most important farm show. Genevieve Mansfield went along to find out more.

French farmers: Politicians must help us with drought and climate crisis
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) visits the International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture) in Paris, on February 25, 2023. (Photo by CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL / AFP)

The Salon is the highlight of the agricultural year with thousands of farmers descending on Paris to show off their wares to the 700,000 people who visit over the course of a week.

It’s also an important rite of passage for French politicians – President Emmanuel Macron visited on Saturday, and just a few days later, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, made an appearance as well. The Salon is used as a barometer of any would-be president’s ability to be “proche du peuple” (close to the people).

EXPLAINED: Why petting cows at the Paris farm show is crucial for French politicians

Macron spent several hours at the Salon on Saturday, but his efforts left many farmers unimpressed. 

Arnault Etienne, a farmer from the Morbihan Gulf in Brittany whose cows were entered in the competition, said: “Our dear President Emmanuel Macron attended on Saturday and he was completely inaccessible.

“Normally the president should walk through this area to see the cows – to take a moment to look at them and pet them, and to speak with us, but with this president it is not like that. There is definitely a difference between him and the others before him”. 

Wine producer and seller from Burgundy, Daniel, felt similarly. “For the politicians, it’s important to visit to see what’s going on in the world of agriculture. We suffer a lot. As for me, I did not get to speak with the politicians. I usually don’t see them – oftentimes, they don’t come out into the crowds, and they stay in their own space”. 

Meanwhile, others, like Sylvie Olivet and Christelle Delma who work for the IGP (Indication Geographique Protegée – a label issued by the European Union to protect certain foods and products from specific geographical areas) of Herault, home to eight IGP recongised wines, noted that the presence of local politicians is not to be forgotten. 

“Just this morning, we had the Préfet of Hérault come visit and give a speech. We’ve also had the president of the region”.

As for Arnault, he explained that when he first began attending the agriculture show, he cared more about the presence of the French president and other elected officials, but he went on to explain that he has become more apathetic to their presence over time.

“Yeah it’s important for them to come, but there’s a difference between what is said and what happens. Like they’ll say ‘eat French, buy French’ but then you go into the supermarket, and people buy what’s cheapest and that’s that.

“The president has to do more for farmers, he has to give us the means to continue existing, especially because desertification is expanding. The next big crisis could be a famine and we are the ones responsible for feeding the world. Last year we had a lot significant heatwaves, even in Brittany”. 

Daniel added: “If I could talk to the politicians, I would mostly say that we are in a difficult period when it comes to the drought. There is not enough support in that area.”

Climate change was at the top of many other farmers’ lists of concerns. This winter France beat previous winter drought records after experiencing 32 consecutive days without any significant rainfall, and water restrictions are already in place for some areas

Sylvie, the head of the Herault IGP, said that “the biggest thing we need the politicians to respond to is the ongoing drought. We are heavily impacted by climate change, and we have already begun to feel the effects of the winter drought. Every year we have climate-related issue. It’s really difficult for wine growers to continue pushing forward”.

During his visit to the fair on Saturday, President Macron addressed concerns about the drought, calling for a “water savings plan” through things like better “harvesting of rainwater” and “better distribution of drinking water”.

The president’s statements came just a few days before environment minister, Christophe Béchu, addressed local authorities to bring forward new water restrictions, to help respond to lower rainfall this winter.

READ MORE: France to impose water restrictions to avoid summer drought

But the Salon is not just about politics, it’s also a chance for France’s farmers and food and drink producers to meet their customers and show off their products.

“We lost a lot of sales during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the year when the Salon de l’agriculture was closed. Last year we started to make up for our losses, but this year is especially important to keep building on that”, explained Daniel, a wine producer and seller in the Burgundy area.

Daniel works alongside his family on the Nuits Saint Georges label. He told The Local that the agriculture fair plays a large role in the organisation’s yearly budget.

“It is the time when we come to renew connections with our old clients, and try to build new relationships to bring in more business. It’s a crucial time for our yearly budget and earnings”. 

Stéphane, a 52-year-old farmer from the France’s Nord departément, said: “The point of the fair is to show the general public – especially the Parisians and tourists – that agriculture is France’s richesse (treasure).  

“We can produce so many of our own products, and we don’t need to rely on other countries. It’s especially important to use this event to show people that, and to show off the fact that our products are of high-quality. It gives us one week under the spotlight to explain agriculture to those who might not visit the countryside themselves”.  

“That, and the competition, of course”. 

Stéphane, who owns and operates his farm of about 90 cows alongside his two brothers, has been attending the fair for over two decades, and was competing in the ‘most beautiful cow’ competition for the Prim’holstein breed.

His cow came in third place this year, after a long selection process where 1,000 cows are entered and only 100 are chosen for the final event. For him and many other farmers, an integral part of the farming event is entering their animals in shows and competitions.

Laurent Verdier, a farmer who raises young bulls (toros) in the Pyrenees in south-west France, echoed Stéphane’s summary. “The goal is for people to come to the Salon and see that they don’t need to go outside of France to find the products that they need, and it’s the same message for the politicians to hear too”. 

Verdier was not convinced that farmers are adequately listened to, however. 

“I think the politicians mostly come to give a performance, though who knows”.

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Will you need a French ID card to use the carte vitale?

The French government has unveiled a plan to combat benefit fraud and medical tourism, but there is one aspect that could also affect foreigners who live in France - a requirement for a French ID card in order to use the carte vitale health card.

Will you need a French ID card to use the carte vitale?

The plan to combat benefit fraud was unveiled in an interview with social security minister Gabriel Attal in French daily Le Parisien. The interview covered only the broad outline of the plan, so there are many questions still unanswered.

In among plans to restrict access to social benefits such as unemployment benefits and family payments to people who spend a significant part of the year outside France was a proposal about the carte vitale health card.

Attal said: “I want to move gradually towards merging the carte vitale card and the identity card into a single secure card, as is the case in Belgium, Portugal and Sweden. This is both a simplification measure and an additional guarantee of the individual’s identity and associated rights.”

He added: “The issue now is cartes vitale used for illegal medical tourism. People coming to France and using someone else’s carte vitale for treatment.”

Over the last five years, 2.3 million cartes vitale have been deactivated because they were “surplus”, according to Attal.

So why is this a problem for foreigners living in France?

The carte vitale is the card that proves that you are registered in the French health system, when accessing treatment, you present your card and a certain percent of the cost of your appointment or prescription is reimbursed by the French state.

READ ALSO How the carte vitale works and how to get one

Anyone who has been living full time in France for more than three months is entitled to a carte vitale – there is no need to be a French citizen – and the vast majority of foreigners living in France have the card, and use it to access healthcare.

The French ID card, on the other hand, is only available to French citizens – including foreigners who have been naturalised as French. It is carried by virtually all French people (although it is not compulsory) and acts as a combined proof of ID, proof of French citizenship and travel document (if you are travelling within the EU).

There are, therefore, many thousands of people who are legally resident in France and who have a carte vitale, but do not have a French ID card.

It is possible to access healthcare in France without a carte vitale – but it means that the state will not reimburse the cost. Patients must therefore pay out of pocket or rely on private health insurance, which is unaffordable for many.

READ ALSO How France’s public healthcare system works

So what will happen to foreigners with no French ID?

As we mentioned, this plan is in the very early stages at the moment. The carte vitale aspect was just one part of a wide-ranging interview that provided very little in the way of concrete detail.

Any change to this system would have to be drafted into a bill, presented to parliament and passed into law. It would also have to go through several checks from regulatory bodies – including a review by France’s data protection authority, CNIL, in order to determine whether it will be legal to combine identity data with health data, as well as how to make such a combination card secure. 

People who are legally living and working in France are entitled to register in the healthcare system, while the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement also guaranteed healthcare for Brits who were living in France before 2011.

In short, French authorities would have would have to introduce some kind of different system for foreign carte vitale holders, otherwise it would, in effect, amount to stripping them of their rights. 

Le Parisien itself noted that “there are still several questions outstanding” around this plan, particularly for the many foreign residents who benefit from a carte vitale, but do not hold a French ID card as well as for those French nationals who also do not have the ID card, because it is not technically mandatory. Attal has not given any details as to how those questions would be answered but The Local has asked the finance ministry to clarify the situation for foreign residents in France.

Waiting times

On top of the legal and political hurdles is a practical one – waiting times for a new carte vitale are already very long, and reissuing the cards to all of France’s roughly 67 million residents is an enormous task.

Pressed on this, Attal said: “I’m launching a preconfiguration mission to determine the timetable and procedures. Obviously, this project cannot be envisaged until card production times return to normal! We need an ambitious and credible timetable.”

A proposal to create a biometric carte vitale – under the same conditions as the current card but with added security measures such fingerprints – was made last year, at an estimated cost of €250 million.

It has run into opposition both on cost and practicality grounds, with many doctors also opposed to it as risking excluding the elderly and other vulnerable groups from healthcare. 

Attal said that a recent report recommends scrapping the idea, although no final decision has been made.

The Local has asked the finance ministry to clarify the situation for foreigners in France