PARIS — French farmers will keep on protesting “for as long as necessary,” the leader of the biggest farming union warned on Monday, as rural discontent thrust itself onto the campaign agenda ahead of June’s European election — with both the far-right and pro-Macron camps trying to stay on top of the matter.
New Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and far-right leader Jordan Bardella engaged in a remote standoff over the weekend, both trying to address farmers’ concerns with Bardella taking aim at President Emmanuel Macron’s track record while Attal tried to be appear understanding of the hardships the sector faces. Bardella, a 28-year-old MEP, leads Marine Le Pen’s National Rally’s list for the EU election. Attal, 34, was appointed prime minister earlier this month in a direct response to Bardella’s momentum and is set to play key role in the European race.
The protesting farmers, who are blocking highways to make themselves heard, are airing grievances about taxes on tractor fuel, access to water and overregulation. Several hundreds have taken part, setting up checkpoints on highways near the city of Toulouse, local daily La Dépêche reported. The windows of a local government building in the nearby city of Carcassonne were blown out by an explosion with two graffiti tags from a winemaker collective left at the scene of the incident, according to Libération and the AFP.
The French protests echo demonstrations across Europe in recent weeks, in particular in Germany, Poland and Romania. Though local grievances vary, the root cause of these protests lies in EU policy, said Arnaud Rousseau, president of France’s main FNSEA farmers’ union. Rousseau, in a radio interview, blasted “incomprehensible European policy” and said the European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy to make farming greener was hurting economic growth in the agricultural sector.
Attal was due to meet with union representatives later Monday, but the trade organizations’ grip on the protest movement is unclear, leading to comparisons with the uncoordinated 2019 Yellow Jackets’ movement. A representative for the FNSEA was booed off stage at one demonstration in Toulouse after trying to tell protesters to go home, journalist Luc Auffret reported on X.
Far right blames “Macron’s Europe”
Bardella, whose party has flip-flopped on the issue of whether France should stay in the European Union, accused “Macron’s Europe” of wanting “the death of [French] agriculture” on a visit to a farm in the southwest on Saturday.
The far right, which has a lead of 10 percentage points in the latest EU election polls, is pushing for an agricultural “state of emergency”, a protectionist farming policy, and for France to exit free trade agreements.
Meanwhile, Attal vowed to ensure that farmers are paid their “fair share” as food producers and said his government would seek answers so that farmers aren’t helpless in the face of environmental restrictions, including new rules on the use of pesticides. “Since [Macron’s election in] 2017, the government has always been by the side of farmers during crises,” he said, adding that his government would look into ways to remove administrative hurdles.
Macron has been shaken by the French rural discontent, POLITICO reported last week, fearing that the far right will capitalize on the situation and poach a voter base that has mostly backed the president since he was first elected. The French presidency asked state representatives to meet farmers while key cabinet members tried to appease the situation all the while launching attacks against the far right.
“I’m glad that Mr. Bardella developed an interest in agriculture over the weekend,” Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said, as he also visited a farm Saturday. “What has he pushed for on agricultural issues in the European Parliament?” he asked rhetorically.
In one telltale sign of the government’s growing fears, a reform to encourage young people to go into farming that was to have been unveiled later this month has been postponed in order to assess the possibility of adding anti-red tape measures.