French President François Hollande was met with jeers from angry farmers at the start of the annual Paris agricultural show on Saturday (27 February), pushing the issue on the agenda of an EU leaders meeting next week.
Television images showed Hollande being booed and whistled at as he slowly made his way with the help of security guards through crowds shouting insults. They also showed scuffles, and a farm ministry stand that had been torn down.
“I hear the cries of distress,” Hollande said in images broadcast on French television. “I prefer the anger to be expressed during the show than outside it.”
The French President blamed his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy for allowing the sector to be deregulated at European level, and promised to bring the issue to the agenda of an EU-Turkey summit on 7 March.
“I can understand the anger when the crises are so numerous and repetitive. But these crises have a cause ― it is the liberalisation and the notion that the laws of supply and demand should fix prices. Let’s take the example of milk quotas. Who broke them? Who took this decision before 2012, with the consequences that we are now facing?,” Hollande said.
French livestock farmers say thousands of them could go out of business as a Russian embargo on Western food and a downturn in global dairy markets exacerbate competition from neighbours such as Germany and Spain, which they see benefiting from lower taxes and lighter regulation.
Top European Union agriculture official Commissioner Phil Hogan met with Le Foll and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in Paris this week, pledging to study French proposals to tackle the market downturn ahead of a 14 March meeting of EU farm ministers.
“Did we expect to hear an expression of anger? Yes, of course,” Farm Minister Stephane Le Foll later told French television, saying Hollande made the traditional visit to the politically important show as a “message of support”.
Hollande said on Saturday that he planned to review a 2008 law impacting relations between producers and the retail industry, which he said favoured retailers.
Other politicians like François Bayrou were more radical. The centrist leader, a committed pro-European, said France should not hesitate confronting the EU on the matter.
“For decades, France used to have a major influence in agricultural policy. Today, it is an incredible absence,” said the the Mayor of Pau. He said the French executive “must impose a debate” at European level, “even if it means opening a conflict.”
France is the EU’s biggest agricultural economy, with output worth €74 billion euros in 2014, about 18% of the EU total.
Hollande’s Socialist party usually wins few votes among farmers, who tend to support conservative parties and have been increasingly turning to the populist National Front.
His government has been at pains to contain farmer protests as it struggles to bring down unemployment a year ahead of national elections. A poll in French daily Le Parisien published on Saturday showed 81 percent of 959 adults surveyed supported the protests.
Hollande’s approval rating fell 5 percentage points to 19% in February, its lowest since December 2014, a poll for weekly Le Journal du Dimanche published a week ago showed.