A protest that closed a motorway for six days as part of the French farmers’ revolt

French farmers have launched militant protests across the country, with road blockades, spraying slurry at town halls and “operation snail” tractor convoys to snarl-up traffic. 

Farmers will begin the “siege of the capital for an indefinite period” from Monday at 2pm. “All the main roads leading to Paris will be occupied by farmers,” said the FNSEA, the farmers’ main organisation. 

On Friday over 70,000 farmers, with 41,000 tractors, protested in 85 of France’s 101 departments according to the FNSEA. They set up 60 blockades of major roads, mainly in heavily agricultural areas and stopped traffic for varying lengths of time on six motorways.

In Narbonne in the south, farmers burned a building of the rural benefits office. Elsewhere they set alight toll booths near Montpellier and a customs office in Nimes.

Farmers stopped lorries carrying produce from countries outside France and either destroyed it or handed it over to the Restos du Cœur. It’s a charity that distributes food packages and hot meals to people in hardship.

There is real poverty for many small farmers, squeezed by the big producers, the government and the supermarkets.

As one farmer put it, “Our costs are increasing, as for everyone—diesel, energy, plant health products. But we can’t sell what we produce because everyone else’ cost of living is going up too.

“My farm, 55 hectares of apples, pears and kiwis, pays me £680 a month. I have children. Without my partner’s salary, we wouldn’t get by.

“On a kilo of apples, I receive 35 cents, the intermediary 80 cents, and the supermarket sells them for three euros. We want profits to be shared so that we can live with dignity from our work.”

Farmers’ demands include a cut in the tax on fuel they use, less paperwork to claim government support and fairer payouts from distributors and retailers. And they want fewer environmental regulations from the European Union and restrictions on “foreign goods”. 

It’s the cry of rage from the “small man”, lashing out at enemies both real and imaginary. And often farmers have elements of both left wing and rotten ideas together. 

Like all small owners, they could be attracted by the idea of progressive and collective revolt alongside workers. But they could be lined up behind racist, xenophobic and narrow demands.

The job of the left and workers’ organisations is to pull the movement in a good direction. Socialists can’t stand apart and spectate, they have to try to shape the outcome.  

The farmers’ revolts began in Germany at the start of the year and then spread to Poland, Netherlands and Belgium.

Agriculture in France is dominated, as everywhere in Europe, by giant agribusiness producers. But there are many small and desperate mini-owners as well.

Look at the pictures and videos from the protests. The tractors involved are not the gleaming giants used by big firms. They’re often old and many look near the end of their lives.

The south of France, the centre of protests, is also the area most hit by climate change. Although many farmers don’t see why they should be the ones to take action over it, when other industries take little action.

The government of neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron has reacted with great caution and sympathy. Polls show 85 percent or more of people support the protests.

Interior minister Gerald Darmanin has told farmers that he wants to “politically support them while encouraging them to respect public property”.  He suggested that he would not order riot police to attack them. 

He lies, “I do not send the riot cops against people who are suffering.” Of course, he does if they are strikers or young people raging against racism.

On Friday the recently-installed prime minister, Gabriel Attal, rushed to the Haute-Garonne region to offer concessions. He used hay bales as a desk as he offered cuts in diesel tax and a few other minor measures.

But, often gathering in mass meetings to listen to his speech, farmers denounced the move as too little and too late. They refused to be divided into “responsible” and “wild” groups as the government had hoped.

On Thursday the CGT trade union federation, seen as the most militant workers’ mass organisation, put out a statement supporting the farmers.

It said, “Like workers, particularly agricultural workers, more and more farmers no longer make a living from their work. At the same time, food prices are exploding and more and more employees are struggling to eat properly. Why? Because wealth is captured by agrifood multinationals whose margins are reaching records. 

“Farmers are also the first losers from the lack of support for the environmental transition of agriculture. To deflect from those in power, the far right organises sexist, racist and homophobic forms of opposition. 

“The entire agricultural model must be rethought in order to produce well, eat well and make a good living from your work. These are the wages that must be increased to allow workers to buy quality food, produced locally.”

But in response the president of the Young Farmers, an offshoot of the FNSEA, said, “We have never rallied to social movements. We are not involved in the same battles, there is no question of mixing subjects.” 

The French media has likened the movement now to the Yellow Vest revolt that swept France in 2018-19 and shook Macron’s rule.

Some farmers proudly identify with the previous campaigners, seeing themselves as part of a nationwide sense of fighting inequality and domination by elites. Others, as one put it, say “We’re not like them, we’re not on benefits, we’re defending our profession.” 

There are at least five farmers’ unions. The biggest, FNSEA, is dominated politically by the big farm groups. It has effectively been co-manager, together with the state, of France’s agricultural system for the past 50 years.

 

It is headed by Arnaud Rousseau who first worked as a trader of agricultural products on the financial markets. He then took over a 700-hectare farm—that’s ten times the size of the average French farm.

The website Revolution Permanente points out, “Christiane Lambert, former president of the FNSEA, now sits on the board of directors of Crédit Agricole, a bank with which many farmers have fallen into debt.”

Another union, Rural Coordination, leans towards the far right, although not all its members support Marine Le Pen’s fascists. It has led some of the most militant protests, but its members also come out with some of the most backward comments.

The Peasant Confederation (CP) and the Movement for the Defence of Family Farmers are more left wing. 

This revolt comes after the massive pension strikes and protests a year ago, and then the largely urban uprisings after the police murder of Nahel M.

The fascists hope to gain from it, but it could also flow into the sense of struggle that has seen mass protests over racist laws recently.

The backstory to the French farmers’ revolt

French agriculture still employs a lot of people, and many of them don’t make much money.
There are over 700,000 farmers—owners, not workers—in France, compared to 100,000 in Britain.
There are about 456,000 farms in France, with an average size of 69 hectares. A hectare is roughly the size of a football pitch. Given that 69 hectares is the average, lots are tiny farms of 25 hectares or even less. That’s not nearly enough to make a living.
Over half of French farms would go bankrupt without European Union subsidies. But 80 percent of the aid and subsidies are grabbed by the biggest 20 percent of farmers.
The poverty rate among French farmers is 18 percent compared to 14.5 percent in the general population. Farmers’ incomes have fallen on average by 40 percent in the last 30 years, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The chief executive of giant milk producer Lactalis, Emmanuel Besnier, is one of the richest men in the country, with a fortune estimated at more than £20 billion by Forbes magazine. French milk producers earn on average £22,000 a year.
Nearly 200,000 farmers will reach retirement age by 2026, when they could collect pensions of roughly £350 a month. In many cases, farmers’ children, unsurprisingly, don’t want to take over the farm. So people work on into their old age or until they drop, doing 70 hours a week to keep a roof over their head. 
When farms go under, the big agribusinesses gobble up their land.

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