French Farmers Lay ‘Siege’ to Paris in Growing Standoff

French Farmers Lay ‘Siege’ to Paris in Growing Standoff

Irate farmers deployed tractors to block the main roads in and out of Paris on Monday in an intensifying standoff that has left the capital girding for disruptions and become the first major test for France’s newly appointed prime minister, Gabriel Attal.

Last week Mr. Attal rushed to farming regions in the south of France and offered a series of rapid concessions as he tried to head off widening demonstrations on roadways from farmers nationwide. But the steps failed to appease many of them.

Many farmers complain that foreign imports are undercutting their livelihood, that wages are too low, and that regulation from both the government and the European Union has become suffocating.

But their concrete demands are so varied that the protests present an increasingly precarious moment for the government, one that defies easy solutions.

“I am determined to move forward,” Mr. Attal said on Sunday after visiting farmers in the Indre-et-Loire area of central France. But he also warned that “there are things that cannot change overnight.”

Hundreds of farmers from the Paris region and from elsewhere in France have now converged on the French capital for what they termed a “siege” of undetermined length, a major escalation after a week of protests and roadblocks that have steadily gripped the country.

Mr. Attal met with the main farmer unions on Monday evening, and the government said there would be new announcements on Tuesday.

But it was unclear whether that would convince farmers to pack up and leave the makeshift camps that they had just set up at highway ramps, gas stations and rest areas around the capital, with rolling shifts to last at least several days.

The protesters have erected barricades on eight major roads within five to 25 miles around Paris, using hulking tractors and bales of hay to block traffic, setting up tents, electric generators and portable toilets, and lighting fires to stay warm.

Miles of traffic jams built up on some roads around the capital, but disruptions to Paris have otherwise been limited so far. The main farmer unions said that they did not want to completely blockade the capital.

“Our goal isn’t to bother the French or ruin their life,” Arnaud Rousseau, the head of the FNSEA, France’s largest farmers union, told RTL radio. “Our goal is to put pressure on the government.”

The authorities deployed 15,000 police officers and gendarmes across France to secure the protests, which also disrupted traffic in cities like Marseille and Lyon and on other French highways. President Emmanuel Macron’s government has tread carefully so far in its response to the movement, which enjoys support from over 80 percent of the public, according to opinion polls.

“We’re not here for a test of strength,” Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said on Sunday.

Mr. Darmanin said security forces would adopt a “defensive position” to prevent farmers from crossing “red lines,” like entering large cities, blocking airports or disrupting Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market, just south of Paris.

Mr. Attal has already promised to simplify bureaucratic regulations, deliver emergency aid more rapidly, and enforce laws meant to guarantee a living wage for farmers in price negotiations with retailers and distributors. The government also scrapped plans to reduce subsidies on the diesel fuel used in trucks and other machinery.

But that has failed so far to quell the farmers’ fury, which is deep and varied. Winegrowers, cattle breeders, grain farmers and other producers have voiced broad complaints over low wages, complex administrative hassles, environmental regulations, unfair foreign competition, as well as skyrocketing energy and fertilizer prices caused by the war in Ukraine.

Other problems are more specific — ranging from water access to cattle epidemics — and farmers have issued a long, patchwork list of demands to the government, though some can only be addressed at the European Union level.

In Agen, a town in southwestern France where the protests have been particularly intense, farmers leaving for a lumbering 370-mile trip to Paris said they didn’t trust Mr. Attal, who has vowed to put agriculture above everything else.

“It’s only words,” said Théophane de Flaujac, 28, who joined the protest from his family’s vegetable and cereal farm, which he says has come under pressure as distributors opt for cheaper imports from Spain and elsewhere without the same strict environmental rules as France. Last week, some protesters angrily emptied trucks carrying foreign produce.

“Before, he said he would put education at the center of everything,” Mr. de Flaujac said of Mr. Attal. “Now, he says it’s farming. After he will say it’s transportation, then health care.”

The few dozen farmers leaving Agen on tractors adorned with protest signs and French flags were members of Rural Coordination, a radical, right-wing and anti-E.U. group that split off from the FNSEA in 1991.

Last week, those farmers laid siege to Agen, dumping debris before symbolic buildings like the train station and banks and social service offices that cater to farmers. They also barricaded the gate of the graceful prefecture building with giant tractor tires, wooden pallets and hay bales, and sprayed it liberally with liquid manure.

Now they have set their sights on Paris, which they expected to reach on Tuesday.

“We did everything we could here,” said Karine Duc, 38, an organic grape grower and the co-president of Rural Coordination’s local branch. “We are going to Paris because we need responses and real measures.”

“This is our last battle,” she added, wearing her union’s mustard yellow hat. “Farmers feel if we don’t succeed in this, we will be crushed.”

It is unclear how long the unions can maintain a united front.

Rural Coordination wants to disrupt Rungis, the wholesale food market that Paris depends on for much of its food, while FNSEA and other more mainstream unions have ruled that out. Taking no chances, the authorities have already stationed armored police vehicles at the market.

Édouard Lynch, a French historian who specializes in agriculture, said the protests were influenced by union jockeying ahead of Chamber of Agriculture elections, which are critical in rural areas because they offer training and distribute farming subsidies. The rivalry itself was adding an unpredictable spur to the protests.

“Clearly, you can see them competing now,” said Mr. Lynch, a professor of contemporary French history at Lyon 2 University. “Rural Coordination has been very effective, which is why the FNSEA needs to keep pushing.”

Farmers were also turning up the heat ahead of a European Union summit in Brussels starting Thursday that Mr. Macron is scheduled to attend.

Some of their ire has been directed specifically at the E.U.’s Green Deal, which aims to ensure the bloc meets its climate goals but has left farmers around Europe feeling unfairly targeted by new environmental obligations.

Marc Fesneau, France’s agriculture minister, said that he would push to preserve an exemption from an E.U. rule meant to preserve biodiversity that forces larger farms to leave 4 percent of arable land fallow or devoted to other “nonproductive” features, like groves, if they want to receive crucial farming subsidies.

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