Protesting Farmers Heap Pressure on New French Prime Minister

Their spreading movement is increasingly becoming a major crisis.

Farmers block a roundabout in Fontainebleau, France, Jan. 26, 2024.
Farmers block a roundabout in Fontainebleau, France, Jan. 26, 2024.
AP Photo/Thibault Camus

PARIS (AP) — Protesting farmers shut down long stretches of some of France's major highways again Friday, using tractors to block and slow traffic and squeeze the government ever more tightly to give in to their demands that growing and rearing food be made easier and more lucrative.

Their spreading movement for better remuneration for their produce, less red tape and lower costs, and protection against cheap imports is increasingly becoming a major crisis for the government. It echoes the 2018-2019 yellow vest demonstrations against economic injustice that rocked the first term of President Emmanuel Macron and lastingly dented his popularity.

This time, Macron's new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, his mettle being sorely tested just two weeks into the job, is hoping to nip the demonstrations in the bud with measures he planned to announce on a visit to a cattle farm on Friday afternoon.

Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said Attal would unveil "a range of answers" to try to defuse what he described as "a serious crisis."

Ranged against the government is the well-organized and media-savvy movement by determined farmers. Using their tractors and, sometimes, hay bales as barriers, they've been blocking and slowing traffic on major roads. They've also dumped stinky agricultural waste at the gates of government offices.

Highway operator Vinci Autoroutes said two highways that are usually busy thoroughfares for road traffic through southern France and into Spain, the A7 and A9, were closed Friday morning by farmers' blockades for long stretches totaling nearly 400 kilometers (250 miles). Blockades also severed more than a dozen other highways, Vinci said. Tractors also blocked some major roads leading toward Paris.

Farmer Nicolas Gallepin, who took part in his tractor in a demonstration at a traffic circle south of Paris this week, said thickets of regulations that govern how food can be produced are swallowing up chunks of his time and that fuel costs are eating into his bottom line.

"We've seen, in the last 10 years, one good year in 2022, but that's it. We've not been paid what we deserve in 10 years," he said. "What really hurts us is competing imports from other countries that don't comply with the same regulations."

The yellow vest protests held France in their grip for months, starting among provincial workers camped out at traffic circles to protest fuel taxes and subsequently snowballing into a nationwide challenge to Macron's government. Likewise, farmers initially vented their anger more modestly, turning road signs upside down to protest what they argue are nonsensical agricultural policies.

But their grievances were largely unheard before they started to grab headlines in recent weeks with traffic blockades and other protests.

More widely, the unrest in France is are also symptomatic of discontent in agricultural heartlands across the European Union. The influential and heavily subsidized sector is becoming a hot-button issue ahead of European Parliament elections in June. Populist and far-right parties are hoping to make hay from rural disgruntlement against free trade agreements, burdensome costs worsened by Russia's war in Ukraine and other complaints.

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