Crisis in French farming as country fails to modernise industry

Farmers addicted to old-fashioned EU policies losing out in new post-quota world

Farmers ought to know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.  But a demonstration in the Paris suburb of Montreuil on Tuesday night stood out among almost daily protests over the crisis in French agriculture, prompted by the collapse of milk and pork prices.

Hundreds of farmers gathered in front of the Agence de Service des Paiements, the agency that disburses some €10 billion in annual EU agricultural payments to French farmers. They sprayed the office building with mulched paper, to protest against red tape and delayed payments, burned tyres and replaced the French and EU flags with those of the FNSEA and Jeunes Agriculteurs farmers' unions.

Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, never ceases reminding the French how much they benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy.  The CAP still comprises 38 per cent of the EU budget. France and Ireland are allies in defending that spending.

But there are profound differences in attitude towards farming. France retains a romantic vision of the profession. The French word for farmer is paysan or peasant. "They never think of themselves as businessmen trying to make a profit," says an Irish source. In a policy paper drawn up for last Monday's council of agriculture ministers in Brussels, Paris suggested that farmers should be paid to decrease output. To France's European partners, it looked suspiciously like a throwback to the old CAP, prior to the 2013 reform that ended quotas.


‘Dairy industry’

“We took a decision in


that we were going to get away from market regulation,” says a European diplomat. “The French want their dairy industry to continue as it always was, and that’s not possible in a post-quota world. I never hear them talk about reducing the cost of production . . . They’re addicted to old-fashioned EU policies which kept farming the way it always was, without modernising and becoming competitive.”

By proposing to control supplies to drive prices up, the French government is addressing the anguish of farmers like Arnaud, a 38-year-old father of two and owner of 140 sows and 40 dairy cows. Before he took his own life in Brittany on February 16th, he wrote a letter in which he said he had no money to comply with French and EU regulations. Nor could he find a buyer for his farm.

“All the young farmers who’ve set up in the last decade are in the abyss,” Arnaud’s friend, Emmanuel, told Europe 1 radio station. “[Prime minister Manuel] Valls . . . come to Brittany to see what is happening . . . It’s high time you came to see the despair of the farmers who feed you.”

Farmers have the highest suicide rate of any group in France.  Suicide is the third cause of death among farmers, after cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Thierry Merret, the president of a farmers’ syndicate in the Finistère, claims 2,000 farmers in the Breton department earn less than €300 per month.

Russian embargo

President François Hollande and Mr Valls have become involved in the crisis.  Mr Hollande promised to bring it up at the EU Council on Friday, though it was not on the agenda.  He has conferred repeatedly with Chancellor

Angela Merkel

about  seeking an end to the Russian embargo on lard, offal and pig fat, which was prompted by cases of African swine flu in Poland.

French farmers dislike the socialist government, and feel disenfranchised from Europe, despite receiving an average of €30,000 each from the EU annually (compared to less than €15,000 for an Irish farmer).

Yet this week, the government gave them everything they wanted.

Mr Valls announced that social charges, which pay farmers’ healthcare and retirement benefits, would be reduced immediately from 45 to 35 per cent of income.

By government decree, meat products processed in France will be required to list the country of origin of ingredients. Agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll estimated the government is spending €1.9 billion to help farmers.

Supermarket chains, including the giants Carrefour and Leclerc, this week established a €100 million "solidarity fund" for farmers, which will in essence pay them to stop demonstrating in front of stores, blocking deliveries and taking foreign products off supermarket shelves.

Emergency fund

Hated Brussels is helping too.  Last September, the commission agreed on a €500 million emergency fund for pork and dairy farmers.  The commission is also financing a French-backed plan to put agricultural products in cold storage until prices rise.

Farmers are hurting throughout the EU, but the crisis is particularly acute in France, where it symbolises much of the country’s inability to adapt to free markets and globalisation, to innovate and modernise .

Instead of working together, farmers, processors, retailers and the ministry often fight each other. They are but one example of the alarming lack of cohesion in French society.