French farmers block roads, appeal to government for help


By Nacho Doce

CASTELNAUDARY, France, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Protesting farmers blocked roads across France on Wednesday to press the government to ease its drive for lower consumer prices and reduce environmental regulations.

Many farmers struggle financially and say their livelihoods are threatened as food retailers are increasing pressure to bring down prices after a phase of high inflation.

"There are too many regulations," Thomas Bonnet, the head of a youth farmers' union in the southwestern France's Castelnaudary area told Reuters at a blockade.

"We'd like to be able to work like in some of the neighbouring countries, to produce, cultivate, do our job."

Arnaud Rousseau, the head of the powerful FNSEA farming union, told France 2 TV that he could not rule out that protests could disrupt the Paris region.

Farming policy has always been a sensitive issue in France, the European Union's biggest agricultural producer, with thousands of independent producers of wine, meat and dairy. Farmers have a track record of disruptive protests.

Fearing a spillover from farmer protests in Germany, Poland and Romania, the government has already withdrawn a contested draft farming law.

President Emmanuel Macron is also wary of farmers' growing support for the far-right ahead of the European Parliament elections in June.

The unrest is the first major challenge for new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and also resonates across Europe.

"The reality is that most of the farmers cannot make their living off the products they are producing," Thomas Waitz, a Green EU lawmaker from Austria, who is also a farmer and beekeeper, told Reuters.

As the EU's Green Deal of environmental policies is rolled out, farmers' increased work and costs need to be reflected in product prices, he said, urging the bloc to make sure imported goods also have to meet high environmental standards to avoid unfair competition.

In France, farmer discontent over prices is particularly acute in the dairy sector, with producers saying the government's anti-inflation push has undermined legislation known as EGALIM designed to safeguard farmgate prices.

Dairy producers are currently in dispute with Lactalis, the world's largest dairy group, over prices and talks with an arbitrator are due on Thursday.

"If the EGALIM law is respected there will be much fewer protests, that's the case in the dairy sector I can tell you," Thierry Roquefeuil, head of dairy farmer union FNPL, told reporters on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Gus Trompiz in Paris, Kate Abnett and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Brussels, Nacho Doce in Castelnaudary; Writing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Benoit Van Overstraeten, Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan)


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