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The French farmers’ protests are more complex than they seem

Farmers’ frustration over French and EU regulations are a new dimension in a longstanding problem.

Farmers in agricultural machinery blockade a highway
Protesting farmers blockade the A6 autoroute on February 1, 2024, in Chilly-Mazarin, France.
Christian Liewig—Corbis/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

French farmers’ unions on Thursday called a halt to protests in which they’ve blocked traffic with their tractors and dumped manure and rotting produce in front of government buildings to make their point. The message: They can no longer earn a living due to cheap imports, a lack of subsidies, and increased production costs.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced a series of concessions, including an agreement not to import agricultural products that use pesticides banned in the EU as well as new financial subsidies and tax breaks. The new policies have — for now — appeased France’s two largest agricultural unions, the Young Farmers and the FNSEA (the French acronym for the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions).

While farmers throughout Europe have been protesting poor wages and bureaucratic policy within their own countries and the EU, the French context is slightly different from other countries. It’s partly because of France’s self-conception and the place of agriculture within its national consciousness, but also because of France’s politics, specifically President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopularity.

France’s farmers seem to have won a victory, but agriculture workers in Germany, Belgium, and other European countries have taken their frustration to the European Union headquarters in Brussels, where the European Commission held a summit Thursday. Some experts have linked the movement with Euroskepticism, a political movement that questions the usefulness of the European Union and often pushes individual countries to leave it. But while there are some shades of that philosophy in the protest movement, there’s more nuance and complexity to farmers’ frustrations — and more of a desire for French influence in the EU.

French farmers’ concerns are somewhat specific to their own agricultural and political tradition, and they reflect a wide range of interests. Some farmers, like a small, un-unionized group in Toulouse credited with starting the highway blockades, claimed their victory last week when the government announced a slate of reforms, including easing regulations around building water reservoirs, compensating farmers for crops lost due to disease, and backpedaling on a proposed diesel fuel price hike.

But other groups, including the FNSEA, the Young Farmers, and the Confédération Paysanne, a leftist union that represents small and rural farmers, weren’t satisfied and vowed to continue their actions through this week, progressing from areas around the country toward Paris. Meanwhile, Belgian farmers moved on Brussels to express their dissatisfaction with EU policies, including a major trade deal with Mercosur, the Latin American economic bloc, and cheap imports from Ukraine. French farmers have concerns about the deal as well.

There is an especially strong culture of protest and labor power in France, and farmers there have been able to press their demands and secure at least some of the changes they want. But what effect they’ll have on EU politics and policy remains to be seen — and they are unlikely to have a major effect on European Parliament elections this summer.

French farmers have been struggling for years, and for many different reasons

There are two major — and interconnected — overarching concerns in France.

The first is income. French farmers, especially smaller and independent farmers, say they aren’t making enough and that their livelihoods will vanish in the near future. Suicide has plagued the agricultural industry in recent years as the sector has shrunk and farmers find themselves unable to earn a living. But French agriculture — wine and cheese, of course, as well as livestock and produce — is a distinct part of French cultural heritage, and France is the EU’s largest agricultural producer.

During Macron’s tenure, tougher environmental standards both in the EU and in France have required French farmers to invest in new production methods. But because of global inflation following the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers are searching for cheaper products. Enter competition from outside the EU, forcing French farmers to sell their products for little profit — or none at all.

Those concerns speak directly to the second problem, which many farmers see as exacerbating the first: competition and free trade agreements.

The EU has a pending trade agreement with Mercosur, the economic bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, that would reduce tariffs on imports from the bloc — especially agricultural products. “In France, many people see it as opening the gates of Europe to foreign products, which is to the competitive advantage of those countries,” Patrick Chamorel, senior resident scholar at the Stanford Center in Washington, told Vox. Because France is the largest agricultural producer in the EU, he said, “the French will take the brunt of the competition.”

The farmers argue this trade agreement and others the EU has with Chile, New Zealand, Kenya, and Ukraine — nations that don’t have the same strict agricultural production standards as the EU — increase unfair competition due to low prices.

Those low prices mean small if any profits, bringing us back to the first problem of income drying up.

Within France, matters are complicated by the fact that the farmers’ unions aren’t all on the same page. There are more radical unions, like the leftist Confédération Paysanne, and unions like the Coordination Rurale, which represents more right-wing interests.

“The FNSEA is the union of the big farmers in France, so they don’t defend the interests of the majority of the medium-scale and small-scale farmers in France,” Morgan Ody, a farmer member of Confédération Paysanne and coordinator for the international farmers’ movement La Via Campesina International, told the BBC’s World Business Report. “They defend the interests of the people who want to export ... so they are not asking for fair prices, they are not asking for a redistribution of the payments linked to the [Common Agricultural Policy], they are just defending their interests, which are the interests of very wealthy men.”

France is dealing with a multifaceted dilemma, then, one that it has to solve within its borders but that significantly depends on EU policy. That will include changes to the aforementioned Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, that went into effect in 2023 and placing further environmental regulations on farmers in order for them to earn the subsidies the policy promises.

Farmers are revealing political frustration throughout Europe

Given that the Mercosur agreement includes import quotas and that negotiations could be concluded before June, just ahead of this year’s EU Parliament elections, European farmers are now protesting in earnest, leading to this month’s mass demonstrations in France, Brussels, and elsewhere.

French President Emmanuel Macron has struggled to please French farmers, particularly small rural farmers whose livelihood is most affected by globalization and the growth of large agribusiness concerns. Since his first term, starting in 2017, Macron has had to balance environmental concerns within French politics and the EU with the needs of rural farmers — whose cause far-right politicians have been all too willing to capitalize upon — as well as the interests of powerful agribusiness tied to the FNSEA.

Early in his mandate, Macron pushed farming practices that aligned more closely with the environmental standards of the Left, Socialist, and Green parties, but he adjusted many of them in the face of protest. And as he geared up for a reelection run in 2021, Macron sought to push back on his image as an elitist out of touch with the needs of France’s rural population.

Attal, who only recently became prime minister, has been the face of the current crisis, working to appease farmers’ demands. With his promises to enshrine the principle of food sovereignty into French law and impose stricter import controls, as well as loosen bans on certain pesticides, he seems to have passed his first major political test.

“I think that the farmers are ready to give Attal a chance,” Chamorel said. “Attal is probably cushioning the blow to Macron — that remains to be seen, but I think right now he is an asset, he is a shield for Macron.”

French farmers’ unions have also demonstrated their power. Though farmers make up only around 3 percent of the labor force, January’s protests — and Macron’s responses to the agricultural sector throughout his years in power — indicate the power of France’s agricultural sector, or at least parts of it, as well as Macron’s utter political weakness. But it’s not going to be the main driver of change within the European Parliament this summer — that’s going to be immigration policy, Chamorel told Vox.

Still, the French protests, and the similar actions by Belgian and German protesters, have been enough to put agricultural issues on the EU summit’s agenda — although it may have taken a trash fire and the destruction of a statue to get there.

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