Thursday, February 22

French Farmers Are Urged by Unions to End Roadblocks

France’s main farmer’s unions called on Thursday for an end to roadblocks across the country after expressing cautious satisfaction with a flurry of new government announcements to appease them, in the first sign of a possible reprieve after more than a week of protests disrupted traffic nationwide.

It was not immediately clear whether the approximately 10,000 farmers at the 100 or so barricades would heed the union leaders’ call and go home after days of blocking key roads with tractors and bales of hay, including in Paris, to express a wide range of deeply rooted grievances.

The unions said that they would monitor closely the government’s promises of new financial aid and a loosening of regulations in the run-up to a major farming trade fair scheduled for this month in Paris.

“The action is not ending,” Arnaud Rousseau, president of the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (the FNSEA), France’s largest and most powerful farmers’ union, said at a news conference in Paris. “It is transforming.”

The move came despite displays of broader fury against the European Union’s farming policies and environmental rules in neighboring Belgium, where thousands of farmers protested on the fringes of a gathering of E.U. leaders, throwing eggs and firecrackers at the police, who responded with water cannons. Farmer protests have also broken out in recent weeks in Portugal, Germany and Greece.

“We are experiencing an agricultural crisis in Europe, and have been for many months,” President Emmanuel Macron of France said at a news conference on Thursday in Brussels. The coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and climate change have led to “massive disturbances” for European farmers, he added.

“We need to profoundly change the rules,” Mr. Macron said.

Mr. Macron said he had asked Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to create the E.U. equivalent of a French law that oversees price negotiations between farmers, the food industry and retailers. He also argued that the bloc needed to better enforce “mirror clauses” in free-trade agreements to ensure that imports from other countries follow the same environmental and sanitary rules as Europe does.

So far, farmers’ unions have been skeptical that the European Union can change rapidly.

“We aren’t going to fix 20 to 25 years of bad decisions in 10 days,” Arnaud Gaillot, the president of Jeunes Agriculteurs, France’s second-largest farmers’ union, said at the Paris news conference.

Mr. Rousseau, of the FNSEA, contrasted the “attentiveness” of Gabriel Attal — Mr. Macron’s newly appointed prime minister, who has spent much of the past week trying to placate the farmers — with the European Union’s “deafness.”

“Europe is our future,” Mr. Rousseau said at the news conference in Paris. But he added, “We do not understand this technocratic Europe.”

Previous attempts by Mr. Macron’s government to appease the farmers had mostly failed. Winegrowers, grain growers, cattle farmers, fruit and vegetable producers, and others have complained about being buried in environmental hassles and administrative paperwork as they struggle to make a living wage.

But on Thursday, the two main farmers’ unions hailed “tangible progress” after a new round of announcements that added to a growing list of concessions the government has made over the past week to contain the protesters’ anger.

Mr. Attal said that France would give livestock farmers an aid package worth 150 million euros ($163 million), push for a clearer E.U.-wide definition of lab-grown synthetic meat, temporarily pause a national plan to reduce pesticide use, and ban the import of foreign produce treated with thiacloprid, a pesticide that is already outlawed in France.

He said that the government would ensure France was not overzealous in carrying out E.U. regulations — which farmers say lead to unfair competition from abroad — and that it would enshrine the concept of “food sovereignty” in French law, although he did not elaborate on what obligations or rules that might entail.

“Our French agricultural exception is not just a budgetary question, but one of pride and identity for the country,” Mr. Attal said.

Bruno Le Maire, France’s economy minister, also said that the government would carry out “massive checks” and crack down on companies that misleadingly advertise their products as “Made in France” — with French flags on the packaging, for instance — or that flout laws meant to ensure farmers are paid fairly in negotiations with retailers and distributors.

Other measures announced by the government included financial help for farmers who are just starting out and tax breaks for retirees passing on their farms to younger generations.

From Brussels, Mr. Macron welcomed a European Commission proposal to limit the effect of Ukrainian imports — a major source of farmers’ anger in the bloc — by creating a “reinforced safeguard mechanism” to fix distortions caused by an influx of Ukrainian grain and by slapping tariffs on Ukrainian goods like eggs, poultry and sugar above certain volumes.

The government’s loosening of pesticide rules, however, has infuriated environmental advocacy groups and Green politicians. Marie Toussaint, a European lawmaker and top-running candidate in France in upcoming elections for the European Parliament, called them an “unacceptable step back” and a “poisoned gift for the farming world.”

“The essential shift in our farming model will not take place unless we rid agriculture of its dependence on toxins,” Ms. Toussaint said on the social media platform X.

But union leaders welcomed the measures and said they would monitor their progress. Mr. Gaillot, of Jeunes Agriculteurs, said at the news conference that if things moved too slowly, “we won’t hesitate to return to a general mobilization movement.”