'Apologies... But the Farmers Are Coming'
Over 1,500 tractors and thousands of farmers have descended on Paris to pressure French lawmakers to address the economic crisis that is leading many towards bankruptcy
"My apologies to the Parisians," said Sebastien Louzaouen, a member of the Young Farmers' Union in France, "but the farmers are coming."
The warning comes as an estimated 1,700 tractors and thousands of agricultural workers from across the country rolled into downtown Paris on Thursday – part of a growing protest movement led by unionized small- and medium-scale farmers who say they are on the verge of bankruptcy due to drops in food prices, an export glut, and the encroaching threat of factory farms.
"It will create some discomfort for the Parisians," acknowledged Xavier Beulin, president of the FNSEA, the nation's largest farmers union and organizer of the protest, during a radio interview on Wednesday. Apologizing for the disruption in advance, Beulin said the dramatic show of force from the farmers was necessary in order to "show the government that there is a great determination, great suffering, and great exasperation" on the part of the nation's struggling food producers.
According to the French Agricultural Ministry, an estimated 10 percent of farms in France—approximately 22,000 sites—are on the brink of bankruptcy with a combined debt of one billion euros.
The Associated Press spoke with grain farmer Pierre Bot, a grain farmer from Vauhallan south of Paris, who said like many small farmers he feels increasingly squeezed out by industrial farming operations which make him fearful of the future. "It's not popular to annoy all the people on their way to work," he said. "Nevertheless, it's one of the only ways to make ourselves heard."
For many, the protest will be a rehearsal for a European-wide demonstration in Brussels on Monday when EU farm ministers meet to discuss answers to the livestock and dairy sectors' crisis.
French livestock farmers have been complaining for months that a slump in prices due to foreign competition, lower demand linked partly to Russia's embargo on Western products and a squeeze in margins by retailers has put more than 10 percent of livestock farmers close to bankruptcy.
They started blocking roads in mid-July, including the route to Mont Saint-Michel, one of France's most famous tourist sites, and dumping manure outside supermarkets in western France, which hosts a large part of the livestock industry.
A delegation of some 100 farmers had specific plans on Thurdsay to visit France's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, to present lawmakers with "the demands and grievances of an agricultural and rural world that is on the brink of exploding and that expects a lot from its national representatives."
"The idea is to put pressure on Paris," Luc Smessaert, deputy chairman of FNSEA, told Reuters. "Farmers are looking for more than just announcements - concrete measures to restructure, provide prospects in the medium to long term and, for the most indebted people, short-term solutions so that they can pull through."
Louzaouen, the member of the YFU which represents agricultural workers aged 35 and under, told the Local.fr that the nation's newest generation of farmers are at their "wits' end" but expressed hope that Thursday's protest will yield results. "If we show that we can blockade Paris," he said, "maybe it will prod the government into action."
Additional photos from Reuters: