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French farmers protest falling food prices, July-September 2015
In 2014, French livestock farmers experienced a six to eight percent decrease in prices of their goods due to falling prices worldwide, a Russian embargo on European Union goods, as well as competition between supermarkets, while distribution companies’ earnings remained the same. On 17 June 2015, members of the French food industry agreed to a hike in the price of meat and dairy in order to increase the amount of money going to the farmers. The agreement stipulated a five-cent price increase per kilogram of beef per week. However, the price of beef increased by only 7 cents throughout the entire month of June. Furthermore, the results of this price increase never reached the farmers. Consequently, farmers remained unable to cover production costs.
Starting on 19 July, French farmers blocked routes into cities in Lower Normandy, France. Spurred by the aforementioned crisis in the cattle, pork, and milk industries that resulted in very low prices, the farmers used their farm vehicles (painted with slogans), rubble, and trucks of manure to block access to Caen and Lisieux. Protesters also restricted access to Mont Saint-Michel, an extremely popular tourist site. In Caen itself, farmers left buckets of manure in front of businesses they considered complicit in keeping prices low and profits away from farmers—a meat-processing plant, a slaughterhouse, a distribution company, and various supermarkets. The French Agriculture Minister, Stéphane Le Foll, attempted to set up a meeting with the protesting farmers for the following Thursday (23 July) in Paris, but the farmers rebuffed his offer, citing a desire for the minister to come to Normandy. “We don’t have the money for the train tickets,” said Sébastien Debieu, secretary-general of the Fédérations départementales des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FDSEA), the regional-level farmers union. In response to the protests, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his support for the farmers, saying that the government “will stand side-by-side with them as we seek a solution.” However, the protesters were unmoved, and promised to continue to demonstrate until the government reached an effective solution.
Two days later, on 22 July, French president François Hollande announced a 1.1 billion euro emergency plan to support the livestock industry. Specifically, Hollande promised to expand competition in the market, combat low prices, and increase pressure on processors, supermarkets, and other retailers to take a lower margin of profits. However, though the farmers took down the roadblocks in Caen, Lisieux, and other parts of northern France, they did not halt their plans to install similar blocks around other major cities in light of the government plan. In southwestern France, 80 farmers, along with three pigs, protested in a supermarket. The next day, 23 July, farmers blocked a section of the A6 highway leading into Lyon, France’s second-largest city, with tires spelling out “Valls, on t’attend” (Valls, we are waiting for you). In addition, the approximately 800 protesters used their farm vehicles to block the road, and threw bottles of milk on the road. Some protesters also burned piles of tires and manure. The protests caused major congestion issues, since the roadblocks affected routes north toward Paris, south toward Marseille, and east to Switzerland. Though the protesters began to remove some of the blocks around Lyon later that same night, they were prepared to rebuild them if their demands remained unmet. All told, approximately 15,000 farmers protested in and around Lyon, along with Xavier Beulin, the president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA, France’s national-level farmers union).
Two days later, on 25 July, farmers in the southwest of France continued the spate of protests by blocking highway tolls in the Lot region and pouring manure in front of supermarkets in the Ariège region. Also in Ariège, protesters burned bales of straw and made large piles of tires on a roundabout at the entrance to the town of Pamiers, near two supermarkets. In addition, the protesters created filter roadblocks with 20 tractors that only allowed certain vehicles through and slowed traffic. They also distributed leaflets denouncing the low prices of milk, beef, and pork. Back in the Lot region, 30 tractors slowed the circulation of traffic on a 15-kilometer stretch of the highway between Souillac and Gignac, while 100 farmers operated the Gignac tollbooth, letting vehicles through for free. Another 50 protesters used a similar tactic at the Cahors-Sud exit of the A20 highway, where they imposed a free toll and distributed leaflets and Quercy melons to drivers.
On 27 July, the protests spread to northeastern France, where protesters created roadblocks on the A31 highway by the Luxembourg border, and on the A4 highway in Alsace near the German border. Though they shared the complaints of the other protesters around the country, these farmers were specifically fighting against competition from bordering countries, where production costs were lower. They prohibited trucks delivering meat and cheese from entering France. However, the farmers in Alsace did agree to end the blockades on the German border once Agriculture Minister Le Foll agreed to meet with them.
After a month-long lull in activity, farmers from all over the country coordinated their largest demonstration yet on 3 September. Over 1,500 tractors converged on Paris, painted with a wide variety of slogans, including “Enough Bureaucracy” and “Proud to Feed You.” However, the tractors and approximately 4,500 farmers did not cause significant disruptions, as most people took public transportation instead of attempting to drive on the blocked roads. In response to the large-scale protest, Prime Minister Valls announced a 3 billion euro plan to modernize production, “subsidize loans, cut social-security charges, delay tax bills and simplify agricultural regulation.” With this plan, the French government met the farmers’ demands for funds for modernization and regulation that would allow them to compete with other European countries, thereby ending the protests.