Hundreds of French farmers have protested in Paris against of falling revenues and growing instability, adding to a number of social issues facing the administration of President Emmanuel Macron.
More than 1,000 tractors approached Paris in the early hours of Wednesday morning, slowing traffic on the périphérique ring road and causing 340 kilometres of backed-up traffic.
Farmers also blocked the Champs-Elysees Avenue and dumped hay outside the avenue's famous Fouquet's restaurant, symbolic as a dining place of the rich and powerful.
Elsewhere, highways were blocked around the city of Lyon in response to farmers unions' calls for nationwide protests.
Falling revenues and growing insecurity
Farmers listed many grievances. In the short term, they were seeking to put pressure on the government ahead of annual price negotiations with supermarket chains. They say a recent law to give producers more say over prices has yet to yield results.
But the protesting farmers aired grievances over a general trend of falling revenues and growing instability, citing falling prices and scrapping of quotas on the one hand and rising costs and anti-pollution taxes on the other.
Some expressed fears that free trade deals the European Union is seeking to conclude with Canada and the Mercosur group of South American countries would flood the market with low-cost and low-quality imports.
Others said their objections to the way pesticide bans had reduced the size of farmable areas had been fuel for “agri-bashing”, a term referring to derogatory treatment by activists resulting in a negative public image.
“People give you the finger when you go out with the crop sprayer and sometimes they hang out by the fields,” Carine Bonnard, a farmer from Normandy, told RFI. “We've had animal rights activists break into our farm, and animals died as a result. There are many examples of this happening elsewhere. It's going too far.”
“We try to be open, communicate and interact with the public. But when we're attacked, we have the opposite reflex: we isolate ourselves, and that's not what we want,” she continued. “We should not have to be afraid to work on our farms. We have a good profession that we love, and that's why we're here.”
Underlining the distress, suicides have also become an issue in recent years with 605 farmers taking their lives in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. The annual number of suicides had been around 150 for the four previous years.
Government 'supports' protest
Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume said he supported the farmers and urged them to wait another year before the law on food pricing to yield notable results.
“I support their anger and their demonstration, I understand why they are upset,” Guillaume told Europe 1 radio. “We are proposing to help them in agro-ecological transition.”
But the farmers on the Champs Elysees said they would keep blocking the avenue until they meet with Macron, whose administration is facing social tension on a number of fronts.
The government recently announced a boost in funding for hospital emergency services, which have been rolling strikes over work conditions for most of this year, and a small but persistent student movement has been simmering since a student set himself on fire to protest precariousness two weeks ago.
And considerable disruptions to public service are already expected next Thursday, when unions have called nationwide strikes against government plans to reform the retirement system.