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Protests and pressure: Why are French farmers so powerful?

Lisa Louis in Paris
February 26, 2024

Farmers in France, as in many other countries, wield a lot of political power — for historical and contemporary reasons. Their influence carries certain risks.

Protesting farmers sitting on their tractor
Do French farmers have more political clout than they deserve?Image: Rossi David/Imago Images

The annual Paris International Agricultural Show is usually a platform for French politicians to show voters how down-to-earth they are. Literally.

But this year's edition, which began on Saturday, will first be a litmus test of whether recent concessions by the government are enough to calm the anger of French farmers.

Judging by the hostile reception that French President Emmanuel Macron received on the first day of the fair, it seems the farmers want the government to do more to support them. Macron was greeted with boos and whistles by angry crowds, who have been demonstrating for weeks against falling incomes and too much bureaucratic red tape

The government's reaction to these protests highlights how powerful the farmers are, said Faustine Bas-Defossez, director for nature, health and environment at Brussels-based European Environmental Bureau, a network of 180 NGOs across 40 countries. Agriculture accounts for only about 1.6% of France's GDP.

French riot police intervene farmers gathering of the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris
French farmers continue to put pressure on the French government amid falling incomes and too much red tapeImage: Mathieu Pattier/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

"The authorities had been cracking down on other protest movements such as the one last year against a recent pension reform using batons and tear gas, but they kept their distance when 12,000 farmers blocked roads across the country for weeks," she told DW.

The police only intervened on rare occasions — for example, when dozens of protesters marched into the international wholesale market Rungis, south of Paris, intending to block it.

Structural reasons behind farmers' power

"The farmers' political power is well enshrined at all levels — through the numerous agricultural chambers but also because many local politicians are farmers themselves," said Bas-Defossez.

Pierre-Marie Aubert, director of agricultural and food policy at the Paris-based think tank Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, even speaks of "co-management."

"The government has been determining agricultural policies jointly with France's biggest farmers union FNSEA for the past 50 years — it's called 'agricultural exceptionalism,'" Aubert told DW, adding that similar systems were in place in other countries such as Germany.

French farmers keep up the pressure

The expert said France's limited number of about half a million farmers, according to government figures, and the sector's clear representative structure have played in the farmers' favor. Other protest movements bring together large sections of the population and many unions that are difficult to coordinate.

"Plus, farmers have always been powerful as they own the land, which is the state's foundation," he stressed.

"The government also draws political legitimacy from being able to feed its population. And we could see how important that is during the food riots in about 40 countries around 2007," said Aubert.

He added that the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine beginning in 2022 highlighted the importance of having a strong agricultural sector to be less dependent on supply chains.

That's why the government quickly gave in to numerous demands by the farmers, making additional promises just ahead of the trade fair.

Paris pledged less red tape, extra subsidies for struggling winemakers and better implementation of legislation supposed to guarantee farmers fair wholesale prices. The government also axed tax hikes for tractor fuel and suspended measures aimed at reducing the use of pesticides.

Macron defends farmers' cause in Brussels

President Macron also took the farmers' case to Brussels. For example, he obtained an easing of an EU rule that requires farmers to keep 4% of their land uncultivated to protect biodiversity.

Paris has also opposed the conclusion of a trade deal between the EU and the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which has stirred fears of unfair competition among farmers.

Following France's objections, the European Commission now says "the conditions for the conclusion of the Mercosur agreement are not met."

David Cayla, lecturer for economics at Angers University in western France and member of the left-wing collective The Dismayed Economists, said the free trade deal is indeed a bad idea.

"In South America, wages and environmental standards are considerably lower," he told DW. "Plus, farms are bigger and yield more produce with relatively little work input, which gives farmers there a competitive advantage."

EU agriculture ministers meet amid farmer protests

Therefore, the economist is in favor of an "agricultural exception" similar to the one granted to France's cultural sector — an idea also recently brought forward by the government.

The country's "cultural exception" implies special protectionist measures, with the government arguing that cultural products shouldn't be treated the same way as commodities.

"Such a system could protect our agricultural sector while laying the foundations for local food networks," said Cayla.

But Alan Matthews, professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Dublin-based Trinity College, thinks the Mercosur deal would be useful.

"It would only allow for reduced import tariffs on a limited amount of agricultural imports and it's important in the current tense geopolitical situation, for example regarding Russia, to have trade deals with other parts of the world," Matthews told DW.

'A more sustainable system is needed'

Agricultural expert Aubert thinks the government siding with the farmers on the matter is yet another sign of how wary politicians are of their influence, especially ahead of June's EU parliamentary elections.

"The new Dutch farmers' party might help the country's far right to power, Germany's far right has been piggybacking recent farmers protests and it's not for nothing that French far-right politician Marion Marechal Le Pen, the niece of former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, went to see farmers protesting in Brussels," he underlined.

Environmentalist Bas-Defossez said this is a threat to European democracy.

"French farmers are trying to ride the wave of anti-EU sentiment — although they are the EU Common Agricultural Policy's biggest beneficiaries," she said.

"They are making the EU's Green Deal, which is supposed to ensure a transition toward a more sustainable society, a scapegoat even though the deal has yet to have any concrete impact on the agricultural sector," she added.

Harriet Bradley from the Brussels-based think tank Institute for European Environmental Policy shares her concerns.

"We understand the social and economic challenges farmers are facing, but it's shortsighted to give in to their demands for fewer environmental regulations instead of creating a longer-term sustainable perspective that makes them more resilient to extreme weather," said Bradley.

Aubert said one condition needs to be met to pave the way.

"We need to set up a system where it becomes economically worthwhile to produce in a more eco-friendly way — otherwise, there's just no incentive to change ways," he said.

The article was originally written in German.