Thousands of farmers from France’s largest grain-growing regions took to the streets of Paris March 25 to protest against government plans to change the way EU farm aid is allocated.
The police said 4,000 people were taking part in the protest while organizers put the number at between 5,000 and 8,000 participants.
The farmers, largely from northern regions of the country, denounced plans unveiled by French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier last month to reallocate 1.4 billion euros ($1.91 billion) of EU farm aid between different sectors in 2010.
“This is a plan that cuts help to agriculture at a time when there are stimulus plans for the car sector, for the banking sector,” Luc Smessaert, head of the farmers’ union for the Oise, one of France’s largest grain-growing areas, told Reuters.
France intends to take aids initially devoted to growers, who saw their revenue rise last year due to a surge in prices, and channel them towards farmers who feed their livestock on grass, those operating in the mountains and producers of organic food.
Farmers warned the decisions were dangerous at a time of high price volatility.
MINISTER STANDS FIRM
But Barnier defended his plan, saying such steps were necessary to prepare for the next large overhaul of the CAP in 2013 and that it was based on negotiations with farm unions.
“The deductions, even if grain growers take their share, are balanced when looking at the level of aids for each sector,” Barnier said in a speech to the French agriculture boards, which represent the main players in the farm sector.
“It is unfair to say that grain farms are the only ones to pay,” he added, stressing that their loss would amount to 10 euros per tonne of grain.
France is the largest beneficiary of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with 10 billion euros ($13.5 billion) in farm payments each year and grain growers get roughly two-thirds of these aids.
While growers’ income jumped in 2008, agricultural commodity prices had fallen sharply this year – because of bigger crops and as a result of the economic gloom – making the French plan less justified, he said.
Crop producers’ union Orama called the French government’s plan arbitrary and brutal and asked that the shift in aid be made over several years, a move Barnier told the agriculture boards would be “difficult,” without explaining why.