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John Lichfield For Members

OPINION: French farmers' signpost protests indicate a major clash on the horizon

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: French farmers' signpost protests indicate a major clash on the horizon
France could see more protests from its farmers next year. Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

If you're in rural France you might have seen village signposts turned upside down - rather than a simple prank this is a protest from young French farmers which could, writes John Lichfield, be the start of a major clash between farmers, environmentalists and the government.

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Normandy has been turned upside down. So, it appears, have large parts of France.

In my corner of Calvados almost all the name signs at the edge of towns and village have been unbolted and replaced the wrong way up. A scribbled sign beside the road announces: “Nous marchons sur la tête.” (We are walking on our heads).

Is this the action of a night-time gang of rural surrealists? Does it announce the return of the Gilets Jaunes?

No. It is part of an agricultural “rebellion of the signs” which started in the Gard in south-eastern France two weeks ago and has spread like a prairie fire across the country.

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The protest, devised by Jeunes Agriculteurs, the young farmers organisation, warns of more disruptive action to come if the government does nothing to address a thicket of agricultural grievances.

French farmers protesting? How unusual.

Actually, it has become less common than it used to be. Farmers have been relatively quiet for several years. They snubbed the Gilets Jaunes protests which began in rural and outer suburban France five years ago.

The government evidently takes the threat of a farming revolt seriously. The Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne met agri-union leaders on Tuesday and caved in instantly to two of their main demands.

Farmers were supposed to pay out €47 million next year in increased licence fees for pumping water from the ground and for pumping pesticides and other chemicals into it. Those provisions have now been cut from the 2024 national budget before it even passed through parliament.

Other grievances remain. Farmers are furious, inter alia, about an unratified EU treaty with South America which would bring cheap Brazilian and Argentinian beef into France.

They also complain about the rise in the price of agricultural diesel fuel (on which they already pay much reduced tax) and delays in the payment of the EU subsidies (of which France receives €7.5 billion a year, more than any other country).

Most of all they complain that France has no clear strategy for balancing the needs of farming and an ecologically friendly future.

Philippe Bardy, leader of the main agricultural union, the FNSEA, in Tarn where the upside-down protest began, said: “Government wants us to change the way we farm; it also urges us to produce as much as possible in the name of food sovereignty. They pressure us to keep salaries high; they also demand that we reduce prices to calm inflation.”

He has a point. Successive French governments for seven decades (with one or two exceptions) have pursued a schizophrenic, or hypocritical approach to farm policy.

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They have paid lip-service to “family farms” and “France’s exceptional food quality”. They have allowed or encouraged EU subsidies to be weighted towards the intensive, chemical-drenched cereal farms and large agri-food industries which make France one of the world’s largest mass exporters of food.

Farming unions are also to blame. The once dominant union, the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitant Agricoles (FNSEA), has traditionally been dominated by the cereals interests which have turned swathes of northern France into a green desert. It has resisted any radical shift in EU subsidies away from large farms to small.

There were 750,000 French farms at the turn of the 21st century. There are now around 450,000.

Despite this steep fall in numbers, two out of five French farmers earn less than €4,500 a year. Without subsidies from Brussels, tens of thousands of them would make a loss.

One of my neighbours in Normandy happens to be president of the Calvados beef farmers. He once explained to me the economics of what, for France, is a big-to-medium farm with 280 animals.

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Daniel Courval and his wife Christine make €25,000 profit from two people’s annual work but the farm receives €50,000 in subsidies from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP.) Without them, they would make a €25,000 annual loss, and there would be no farm.

This fragile world is threatened by two new-ish factors. More than half of France’s remaining farmers are over 50 years old and will retire before the end of the next decade. There is, so far, no clear national policy for encouraging would-be young farmers to replace them.

Farming is the second biggest source of carbon emissions in France after transport. Agriculture is supposed to reduce its greenhouse emissions such as methane– a large part of which emanates from the front and back of cows – by 16 percent by 2030.

Beef production is falling but beef-eating is increasing again. The government wants France to produce more of its own food. This implies more intensive farming; the ecological transition implies the opposite. French farmers detest the idea of imports from countries which impose weaker environmental constraints than the EU.

Emmanuel Macron claims, with some reason, to be a farm-friendly President. He has promised to fight post-Brexit cuts in the EU farm subsidies. He is refusing to sign the Mercosur – South American – trade treaty in its present form.

But his government has skirted around or paid lip-service to solving the contradictions listed above, between productivity and ecology, mass-production and quality production, family farms and cheap food. So, until now, have the big farm unions.

At some time before the end of the year, the government is expected to address these issues in a “farming pact” or “orientation law for the future of agriculture.|”

If it fails to grapple with the core of the problem - and possibly even more so if it does - rural France could be turned upside down for real next year.

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Julie Lafontaine 2023/12/11 16:17
No wonder so many older French farmers with fertile land are attracted to the long term leases (40 years) offered by BIG SOLAR under the guise of Agri-photovoltaism. I get it. Guaranteed income with little effort. However, fertile farmland and the beautiful landscapes of rural France shouldn't be sacrificed. There are better, less destructive options for industrial solar parks. Interesting petition https://agir.greenvoice.fr/petitions/non-photovoltaique-sur-des-terres-naturelles

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