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Farmers arrested as protests blockade key food market, close in on Paris

In Europe, World
January 31, 2024

French police arrested about 20 farmers on Wednesday as convoys of tractors edged closer to Paris, Lyon and other key locations, with many ignoring police warnings over the scope of their action.

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France has been at the centre of growing rural discontent across Europe, with protests also held in Germany, Poland, Romania, Belgium and Italy. Spanish farmers have said they will join the movement.

Amid mounting calls for higher incomes, less red tape and protection from foreign competition, “there are huge expectations” among farmers, said Arnaud Rousseau, head of France’s largest agricultural union the FNSEA.

But he added that not all of the demands could be immediately answered “so I’m trying to call for calm and reasonableness”.

Eighteen people trying to blockade the Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris, a key food distribution hub for the capital region’s 12 million people, were arrested for “interfering with traffic”, police said.

Prosecutors said 15 of those arrested were in custody.

Between 200 and 300 tractors in a convoy that set off from southwest France were kept away from the market by police, who deployed armoured vehicles as a precaution.

Units were deployed along the A6 motorway leading to Rungis and police checkpoints were set up around the market.

Read more‘French agriculture can’t be bartered away’: Farmers unite against EU rules and globalised markets

The government has warned farmers to stay away from Rungis, Paris airports and large cities. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has ordered police to tread lightly but warned that they were ready to defend strategic spots.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal met leaders of the second and third-largest farmers’ unions on Wednesday, a source close to his staff said.

Government concessions

The authorities have offered concessions, with Attal—installed just this month—telling parliament Tuesday that his government stood ready to resolve the crisis.

In an apparent reference to contested EU rules, he said: “France must be granted an exception for its agriculture.”

The European Commission said it would offer temporary relief this year from contentious rules requiring some farmland to be left fallow, ahead of a visit to Brussels by French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau.

It will also set up measures to limit fallout from Ukrainian farm produce entering the EU, after tariffs were lifted in response to Russia’s invasion.

France is also opposing a trade deal between the European Union and the South American Mercosur bloc—a key grievance for protesters—being signed in its current state.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said there would be closer surveillance of European food trading platforms to ensure that “farmers’ income is not the first thing to be sacrificed in trade negotiations”.

‘Believe it when I see it’

But farmers said the promises, including assurances of higher payouts under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), did not go far enough.

“Several of these measures will take three or four years to be implemented,” said Johanna Trau, a grain and cattle farmer from Ebersheim in Alsace, eastern France. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

France is the biggest beneficiary of EU farm subsidies, receiving more than nine billion euros ($9.8 billion) each year.

A police source said that as of midday Wednesday there were 6,500 protesting farmers and 4,500 tractors on French roads, blocking 80 spots along major roads.

In addition to moving on Paris, convoys were also attempting to encircle Lyon, France’s third-biggest city, and set up blockades around, or demonstrated in, several other locations across France, causing heavy disruption to commuter traffic.

“Unless proper decisions are made, there’s a good chance we’ll be back here or at some other spot next week,” said Samuel Allix, a potato farmer in the Bordeaux region.

Rousseau meanwhile warned that government representatives might get a hostile welcome at next month’s Agriculture Fair in Paris that draws 650,000 people and is a must-visit event for ministers and presidents.

“It’s not going to be a walk in the park,” he said.


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