Angry French farmers have besieged the town of Vannes in Brittany and blocked roads across western and northern France to protest against collapsing milk and pork prices.
EU agriculture ministers, meeting in Brussels, came under pressure from the French government to ease Russian trade sanctions and to intervene to take surplus pork, milk and butter off the European market.
Despite receiving a €600m package of special government aid last summer, the farmers say they are being forced out of business by rock-bottom prices, especially for pork and dairy products.
More than 200 tractors and trailers blocked all roads into the town of Vannes in southern Brittany. Heaps of manure and burning tyres were dumped on crossroads. Local taxi drivers and oyster farmers joined the protest to publicise their own grievances. There were similar road blocks across Brittany and Normandy and in Picardy in northern France and in the central Auvergne region.
President François Hollande promised last week to reduce social taxes on French farmers – which are set at 45 per cent of their income, compared to an average of 30 per cent in other EU countries. The Prime Minister Manuel Valls is expected to announce other relief measures on Tuesday.
French farmers’ leaders are also calling for action at the European level, including at least a partial suspension of trade sanctions imposed to punish Russia for annexing Crimea two years ago. A tit for tat Russian ban on some EU food exports partially explains the collapse in dairy and meat prices in western Europe over the last 18 months.
The French agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, is also pushing in Brussels for more generous EU terms for taking surplus pork and milk off the market.
“We can’t carry on like this. We are being asphyxiated,” Michel Joux, president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes federation of farm unions said.
“We have to have prices which are linked to our cost of production, not a world market which is constantly going down.”
The protests reflect a triple crisis in French and European agriculture. Dairy, beef and pork farmers have suffered a collapse in farm gate prices of up to 40 per cent in the last 18 months – as have similar farmers in Britain.
Farmers no longer have the cushion of EU intervention to prop up the market. The old system of prices guaranteed by Brussels and stocking of surpluses has been progressively dismantled over the last dozen years.
World news in pictures
The Russian embargo has deepened problems caused by reduced consumer demand for milk and meat.
All sides agree that the animal husbandry sector of French agriculture – about 50 per cent of the whole industry – is facing its worst crisis for three decades. Mr Le Foll, the agriculture minister, said last year that one in 10 of all French dairy, beef and pork holdings – about 25,000 farms – were almost bankrupt.
The French supermarket industry is also accused by farmers of conspiring to force down the price of food. The government has announced an investigation into alleged pressure on food processing companies to cut already rock-bottom prices. There have been a series of raids by French government inspectors on supermarket headquarters in recent days.