French farmers lay siege to Paris with vow to cut off food

Hundreds of tractors laid siege to Paris on Monday as farmers furious at French and European rules said they intended to “starve Parisians”.

Long lines of tractors blocked motorways at eight entry points to the city as one militant union promised to take control of the world’s biggest fresh food market.

“[Blockading Paris] will happen naturally. Parisians are going to be hungry. The goal is to starve Parisians. That’s it”, said Benoît Durand, a grain farmer.

Mr Durand, like thousands of others, said he was struggling against low income, red tape and environmental policies that were pushing costs up. President Emmanuel Macron, who is under mounting pressure to reassert his authority, was set to announce new measures for farmers as early as Tuesday, the Elysée said.

The protests follow similar action in other European countries, including Germany and Poland, ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the hard-Right are making gains.

A farmer lies in a pile of hay after spending the night at a highway barricade in Aix-en-Provence, southern France
A farmer lies in a pile of hay after spending the night at a highway barricade in Aix-en-Provence, southern France - Daniel Cole
Protesters hang an effigy as they gather during a blockade on the A4 near Paris on Monday night
Protesters hang an effigy as they gather during a blockade on the A4 near Paris on Monday night - REUTERS

The main farming unions do not back strangling Paris’s food supplies but on Monday night angry farmers refused to move, setting up barbecues on motorways and sleeping in trailers.

In the event of major disruption, Paris would only have three days’ food supplies, as deliveries are made every day, according to Ademe, a government agency.

A group of 90 tractors left Agen, southwestern France, on Monday morning with the aim of “occupying” the Rungis food market, where more than 8,000 tons of goods pass through to feed nearly 12 million people every day.

A 24yo animal osteopath with her sheep Bouchon on a blockade east of the French capital
A 24yo animal osteopath with her sheep Bouchon on a blockade east of the French capital - Mehdi Chebil
tractor protest
The farmers are upset about increasing regulations hurting their livelihoods - REUTERS/Stephanie Lecocq

The tractors were due to reach the market, dubbed “the belly of Paris”, by Tuesday night or Wednesday at the latest. Their ranks were expected to swell considerably along the way. Some 10,000 farmers and 5,000 farm vehicles took part in action around the country, French police sources said on Monday.

Armoured military vehicles were dispatched to the market and 15,000 police and gendarmes were deployed around the country to prevent tractors from entering Paris and other major cities.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said he had ordered security forces to show moderation, but also warned farmers not to cross certain red lines. These included cutting off Paris’s main airports or Rungis.

“We don’t intend to allow government buildings, or tax collection buildings, or grocery stores to be damaged or trucks transporting foreign produce to be stopped. Obviously, that is unacceptable,” he said.

The government has tried to appease the protesters with a string of concessions in recent days. On Friday, it dropped plans to gradually reduce state subsidies on agricultural diesel and promised a reduction in red tape and an easing of environmental regulations.

Unions said that was not enough and pledged to step up the pressure.

Spirits were high on Monday night on the A1 highway at Chennevières-lès-Louvres, within sight of Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, 25 kilometres north of Paris.

As night fell, farmers warmed their hands around bonfires and barbecued sausages as they sipped wine and beer. Behind, their tractors formed an impregnable convoy blocking off the capital.

As fires raged, Soft Cell’s UK hit “Tainted Love” and Madness’ “One Step Beyond” blasted over the farmers’ sound system as they chomped on beef burgers and temperatures approached zero.

“We’re here because we’ve had enough, we want to defend our pay, we’ve had enough of all the excessive red tape that’s even worse in France than the rest of Europe,” said Robin Leduc, 30, who runs a 200-hectare farm in Canly, not far from the tractor checkpoint.

“The government has to act fast then we can all go home as we have work to do on our farms.”

Mr Leduc said he had found an unlikely British ally in the shape of Jeremy Clarkson, who has gained plaudits for the Amazon Prime series Clarkson’s Farm, which charts his attempts at running a 1,000-acre farm in the Cotswolds.

“We need a French celebrity to do the same as Jeremy Clarkson. Everything he explains in it is why we are here today. You may have left the EU, but we share many of the same problems regarding all these environmental rules.”

Gendarmes look on as the protests continued into the night
Gendarmes look on as the protests continued into the night - Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

The government has been trying to keep discontent among farmers from spreading ahead of European Parliament elections in June, seen as a key test for Mr Macron’s government.

On Monday, the government said it would push its EU peers to agree to ease regulations on fallow farmland. Farmers must currently meet certain conditions to receive EU subsidies, including a requirement to devote four per cent of farmland to “non-productive” areas where nature can recover.

With cheap imports a burning issue, Mr Macron’s office also said he had told the European Commission it was impossible to conclude trade deal negotiations with South America’s Mercosur bloc. The president’s office believes it has an understanding that the EU has put an end to the talks.

The French president will make a push for more pro-farming policies at an EU summit on Thursday.

tractors on the motorway
The French government has warned the farmers not to cross red lines including blocking airports or the capital's largest market - Loock francois / Alamy Live News

Henri Haquin, 43, who runs a 300-hectare farm in Bregy, north of Paris, said: “We get the feeling that Brussels doesn’t understand what we do and comes up with new laws every month that are difficult to understand and work with.”

He also has a real estate business to make ends meet, saying he won’t make a profit from his farm until he has paid off bank loans in a decade.

“Life on the farm is more and more difficult to make ends meet. We fear for the new generations. The main problem is unfair competition, lots of products from elsewhere without the same norms,” he said. “This is the only way we’ve found to get the government going”.

However, he insisted: “We clearly don’t want to starve Parisians. Only a small minority wants to block Rungis. For now, 90 per cent of the French are behind us. If we do that we’ll lose that support. We simply want to put pressure on the government and get solutions and go back on some laws we find completely ridiculous and inapplicable.

“All of the farmers in Europe are starting to move and say they can’t work with European laws as they are and I hope this can change things.”

Protests have taken place elsewhere in Europe, including in neighbouring Belgium, where farmers have stepped up their campaign against the administrative burden placed on them, including disrupting motorway traffic at the Daussoulx interchange near Namur.

The Daussoulx interchange in Belgium was blocked on Monday
The Daussoulx interchange in Belgium was blocked on Monday - ERIC LALMAND / Belga / AFP

Véronique Le Floc’h, president of France’s hard-Right-leaning Coordination Rurale union, said on Monday that farmers would target the Rungis market to “show the consequences if there are no more farmers tomorrow”.

She said that she wanted to “identify the proportion of imports and what type of products come in” to the market. In recent days, farmers have seized shipments from Belgium, Spain and Poland, scattering them across the highway and setting fire to them.

Marc Fesneau, the French agriculture minister, outlined a list of government “priorities” for farmers on Monday. These included tougher inspections on provenance of food products and “Frenchifiying farm products”, without providing more details.

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