John Lichfield For Members

OPINION: French farmers have legitimate complaints, but it's not all the EU's fault

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: French farmers have legitimate complaints, but it's not all the EU's fault
Farmers block the A64 highway, in protest against taxation and declining income. Photo by Valentine CHAPUIS / AFP

As French farmers blockade highways amid growing anger around Europe from the agriculture sector, John Lichfield examines their grievances, and whether the EU is really to blame.


First the road signs. Now the country.

Farmers are threatening to turn France upside down for real this week, extending last month’s witty and peaceful “inverted road sign” protest to a blockade of motorways and power stations.

There is danger to Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s new government in this escalation of Europe-wide agricultural fury. There is also danger to the European Union.

Far-right politicians, in France and elsewhere, are throwing diesel fuel onto the flames before the European elections in June.


The reasons for the anger vary from country to country and from one type of farming to another. The common theme is a drive by the EU to force farmers to cut their pollution of rivers, the soil and the air - while at the same exhorting them to produce more and better food.

There is also danger to French farmers in the hardening of the protests, as the more responsible agricultural union leaders know. The days when French farmers could mobilise dozens of armoured divisions of tractors are over.

The number of farms in France has shrunk by 40 percent to 450,000 in the last two decades. This is one cause of the agricultural anger but also a limit on its effectiveness.

Farmers are now a small minority in many parts of the French countryside. Unlike the Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018-19, which farmers ignored, they may find they have limited sympathy in both rural and urban France.

The main union leaders know this. They have been trying to make their case without upsetting the lives of their fellow citizens. Hence the “rebellion of the signs” which began last month.

The name signs of thousands of towns and village were unbolted by farmers and replaced the wrong way up. Scribbled signs beside the road proclaimed: “On marche sur la tête.” (We are walking on our heads).

More disruptive protests in Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy have now spread to France. The main French farmers’ union, the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitant Agricoles (FNSEA), has been forced by grassroots pressure to turn to direct action.

The FNSEA, traditionally dominated by the big cereals-growing interests of northern France, faces an increasing challenge to its authority from the far-right-leaning, anti-Brussels Coordination Rurale, which is strongest in the smaller-farm South. A left-leaning union for ecologically-friendly family farms, the Conféderation Paysanne, is also considering its protest options.

The former Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne caved into some of the farmers' demands before Christmas. 

Farmers were supposed to pay out €47 million this year in increased licence fees for pumping water from the ground and for spraying pesticides and other chemicals into it. They were also supposed to pay more tax on their subsidised agricultural diesel. Both have been delayed.


The new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal - who meets FNSEA leaders on Monday night - has promised to ease the bureaucratic burden on farmers who say that they now spend one day in seven filling in EU and national government forms. He has also promised to examine the farmers’ allegation that France often “green-plates” EU environmental regulations, making it harder for French farmers to compete with other European countries.

French farming anger overlaps with some of the protests in other EU countries.

In Germany, the main complaint is new taxes on diesel fuel. In Poland and elsewhere, it is the competition from Ukrainian farmers who have been given special access to the EU market.

In the Netherlands and Ireland, it is the drive by the EU to make dairy and beef farming less intensive and environmentally destructive (after decades of Brussels policies which encouraged productivity).

I live in the French countryside. I was brought up in the English countryside. I am instinctively pro-farmer.

But a large part of urban and suburban France thinks differently, if it thinks about farming at all. Everyone knows, after all, that food grows in supermarkets.


French farming is massively subsidised by the French and European tax-payer. France receives €7.5 billion a year from the EU farm policy, more than any other country.

Despite the romantic image encouraged by farmers’ unions and parts of the French media, the environmental record of the big cereals and pork farms is calamitous. Every river in Brittany is poisoned by pig slurry and the run-off from nitrogen fertilisers.

Much of northern France is now a green desert in which hedge-less cereals fields are as large as those in Nebraska or Alberta. Farming is the second biggest source of carbon emissions in France after transport.  

Farmers in France and elsewhere can no longer expect to be subsidised for polluting air, water and soil. The Far-right says they can and should be. The more sensible farmers' leaders and farmers accept that is unsustainable.

But they complain that France and the EU has no clear strategy for balancing the needs of farming and an ecologically-friendly future. The Brussels Green Deal, they say, will reduce European food production. At the same time, the EU is calling for greater “food sovereignty”.

The EU is signing food import deals with other countries - New Zealand, Ukraine, South America - whose farmers are not constrained by the same environmental or animal welfare rules.

They have a point. Successive French governments  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 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.

The problem cannot be solved in France. It can only be solved in Brussels. The EU is right to turn away from its old policies which encouraged intensive and destructive forms of farming.

But it needs to admit that less pollution will mean less food, not more. That  does not, inevitably, mean fewer farmers.

It does probably mean more expensive food or more public subsidies - or both. But who is willing to admit that?

The farm unions are divided on where the new balance should be found. So are the different EU governments. The Far-right, in France and elsewhere, profits from simplistic criticism but offers no solutions.

The French farmers are right. It’s an upside-down world. But they are unwilling to admit that they are partly to blame.


Comments (2)

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James 2024/01/28 11:29
Great article. The far right depends on a confused, ignorant populace getting news from Facebook. The mainstream parties need to start telling the truth about the inevitable compromises to come.
Lin 2024/01/25 08:52
"Every river in Brittany" polluted. Can you give a source?

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