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ANALYSIS: French farmers have won this battle, but are losing the war

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: French farmers have won this battle, but are losing the war
A French police officer stands in front of tractors blocking the A6 highway near Chilly-Mazarin, south of Paris. Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

French farmers have won big concessions from both France and the EU, writes John Lichfield, but these address none of the long-term problems and the hard choices that farmers, governments and consumers must make.


The French farmers have won. They have already won more concessions from the government and from the EU than they would have dreamed of a week ago.

But some of them don’t want to go home. They think they have the government on the run. They are having fun. They want more.

In truth, there is no such monolithic thing as “French farmers”. There are a dozen sectors, a half dozen regional differences and three mutually loathing farming unions.


Satisfying them all is impossible - and probably undesirable.

All is not equal in French farming. Some farmers are suffering. Some are making a fortune.  On average, French farm incomes are rising not falling.

The biggest French farming union, the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA), is struggling to keep its members under control.

The far-right small farmers’ union, Coordination Rurale, which detests the EU and the government AND the FNSEA, has sent a column of 200 tractors to disrupt the vast wholesale food market at Rungis south of Paris. Some have been arrested; some have agreed to retreat; others are still trundling north.

 If there is violence in the next few days, it will start with them.

In retrospect, the new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal blundered last week when he sought a publicity coup by snubbing the FNSEA and dealt on live TV with rebel beef farmers in the south west.

The union leadership was furious. They dropped the reins holding back angry members in different parts of the country.

They encouraged a siege of Paris which was meant to be a controlled show of force. They are now struggling to prevent their more militant members from joining ranks with the trouble-makers of the Le Pen-leaning Coordination Rurale.

The many jealousies and tensions between farm sectors and farm unions are crystallised in the profile of the FNSEA’s leader, Arnaud Rousseau. He is a multi-millionaire, farmer-businessman with 700 hectares of cereals north-east of Paris.

An image went viral on French social media last weekend. It showed a motorway blocked by a line of Ferraris. The image was captioned: “The big cereal producers of Beauce (the vast, fertile plain south of Paris) join the farming protests”.

There are no Ferraris in the motorway blockades in the “siege of Paris” this week but there are scores and scores of shiny, new giant tractors which cost up to €200,000 each.


There are also shabby tractors from the 1970s covered in mud.

The rebellion may have started with the agricultural 'sans-culottes' of southern France but the siege of Paris is spearheaded by farming aristocrats.

The cereal growers of north and central France have just enjoyed two years of biblical plenty. The Ukraine war drove up the global price of wheat and barley. They were still able to claim six-figure acreage subsidies from the EU farm policy.

Two of their demands are dubious, even disgraceful.

They want to reverse EU restrictions on the use of pesticides, including a ban on spraying pesticides close to people’s homes. They object to a new EU rule which forces them to leave 4 percent (just 4 percent) of their land fallow each year to revive the wild plant and animal life which has been extinguished by decades of intensive farming.

Other French farmers - dairy and beef producers, fruit growers and makers of cheaper wines - have deeper and more genuine problems. They have been stricken by drought and flood and a new disease affecting cattle. Fodder prices are high and beef and dairy prices are low.

Many have invested in a switch to bio-agriculture, encouraged by Brussels and Paris, but now find that the demand for organic products is too weak to sustain the repayments on their loans.


Since he came to power in 2017, President Emmanuel Macron has enacted three laws which are supposed to force France’s powerful supermarket chains to pay reasonable margins to farmers for food.

The supermarkets have found ways of short-circuiting the laws. They have imposed low, wholesale prices for beef, milk, poultry, fruit and vegetables – while raising their own prices in line with “global food inflation”.

Most of these issues have been addressed by concessions made by the government and the European Commission in the last few days.  

The EU has partially suspended the 4 percent set-aside rule. It has promised greater control over cheap food imports from Ukraine.

The French government has abandoned plans to increase taxes on the cheap diesel fuel available to farmers. It has offered a €100 million relief package to struggling wine producers in the south. It has promised to enforce more rigorously the laws on fair prices for farmers.

The FNSEA leadership is now struggling to convince its members that these are real achievements which will need time to take effect.

The left-leaning Conféderation Paysanne says the relaxation of the environmental rules is a regression, not an advance. It wants to go back to the era of EU guaranteed farm prices, which produced the butter mountains and wine lakes.

The hard right Coordination Rurale is looking for trouble, not solutions. Its members are mostly responsible for the attacks on food lorries from other EU countries in recent days.

Such attacks are utterly foolish and self-defeating. French farmers are by far the biggest beneficiaries from the EU farm policy (which gives them subsidies worth €9 billion a year). Closing national borders to “foreign” food makes no sense for a country which sells €2 billion worth of cheese abroad and exports half its cereals.

A proper debate on the future of farming is long overdue but much of the French media discussion of the farmers’ revolt has been misleading and hystericised. The crisis will pass but the central conundrum will remain.


How can farmers respect new environmental constraints, produce food plentiful and cheap enough to satisfy consumers AND survive with low prices and fewer EU subsidies?   

Brussels still tends to shovel the biggest share of aid to big farmers who need it least. Successive French governments - and the dominant French farming union, the FNSEA - have defended that illogical approach while paying lip-service to the need to protect “small family farms".

In an opinion article in Le Figaro this week, the philosopher Robert Redeker, blamed the crisis on “ecologists” who “have contempt” for the deep roots of France and want to see a “land without people”.  

This is piffle. If anything cleared French farmers from the land in the last half century, it was the pre-ecological, intensive EU farm policy, supported for decades by French and other EU governments and by the dominant farming unions.

You only need to look out of the window of the Eurostar as it races towards Paris through northern France to see hedgeless, chemical-soaked cereals fields three times bigger than farms used to be until the 1970s.

Some rationalisation of farming in the name of efficiency and productivity was inevitable. But what now?

Do we want to keep more farmers on the land? Do we want to make farming more ecologically responsible? Yes and yes.

Are we therefore prepared to pay much more for our food? Are we prepared to subsidise farming more, rather than less? No and No.


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dr Dean Price 2024/02/05 00:05
Nice to see you John Litchfield I was a regular reader of the Independent and latterly the i which I now read on my iPad ( sign of the times) Enjoyed reading the article on farming. I’ve always respected you for your straight talking and balance and it looks like you haven’t lost your touch
Meredith Wheeler 2024/02/01 12:46
Last night in our village of Lautrec in the Tarn, I attended a gathering of regional bee-keepers in the southwest. They--and the bees--are under incredible stress. There are attacks from the invading species of Asian hornets plus the effects of climate change--drought and super high temperatures. This effort to overthrow the set-asides for wildflowers on which honey bees thrive is another blow--as is the use of industrial chemicals on crops--as these kill bees and other useful insects.

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