A mob of French farmers kicked off an annual agriculture expo in Paris Saturday by destroying a stand belonging to the country’s deeply unpopular agriculture minister before being contained by French riot police.
Dozens of farmers belonging to FNSEA, the country’s largest farmers’ union, booed and whistled at President François Hollande and Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll when they entered the expo center.
They wanted to “say loud and clear at the stand ... that this country’s agricultural producers don’t feel like citizens,” FNSEA Secretary-General Dominique Barreau told the Agence France-Presse.
The destruction and hostility are the latest in a long run of protests over what farmers say is a lack of support from the government in the face of tremendous economic challenges. Beginning last year, French farmers have taken a number of actions to draw attention to their position, including letting pigs loose in supermarkets, blocking highways with tractors and burning tires and manure and stopping and commandeering trucks filled with produce being imported from neighboring countries.
“I hear the cries of distress,” said Hollande, who plans to seek re-election in 15 months despite dismal approval ratings. “If I am here today it’s to show that there is national solidarity.”
A whole host of things have been going wrong for France’s farmers for years. Prices for food staples like wheat and corn have been sliding since 2011. Demand from China, one of France’s largest customers for agricultural products, has waned as that country’s economy has begun to slow down. A Russian embargo on western European food products imposed in response to sanctions for its actions in Ukraine further tamped down sales of meat. And many of France’s neighbors, including Spain and Germany, interpret EU quality control standards in a way that’s far less rigorous, making it harder for France’s farmers to compete in their own supermarkets.
The result, for many farmers throughout the country, is workweeks that run past 70 or 80 hours, in return for as little as 200 euros per month. More than 10 percent of France’s small farms are on the verge of bankruptcy, according to the French government. Laurent Pinatel, spokesman of the national small farmers group Confederation Paysanne, said Saturday 5,000 farmers are leaving the sector every year. “They feel there is no future,” Pinatel told France 24.
The situation has become so bleak that suicides among farmers have risen. Some 600 farmers now take their own lives every year, industry advocates say. The suicide rate among farmers is 20 percent higher than for other French workers, all the more alarming in a country whose suicide rate is nearly 43 percent higher than that of other EU member nations.
Whether Le Foll or Hollande are capable of reversing the trends could help decide their political fate. Both are up for re-election in the next 15 months, and both face low approval ratings. Fifty-three percent of French citizens say Le Foll is “overall, a bad minister,” according to a poll published by Le Parisienne Saturday, while Hollande’s approval rating fell to 19 percent, according to polling released last week by the French news weekly, Le Journal du Dimanche.