Death and destruction are the prevalent themes of mass protests organised by farmers across France this week. They have strung life-sized “suicide dummies” from motorway bridges, while blockading major cities including Paris, in a bid to stop food getting in.
“The goal is to starve Parisians. That’s it,” said Benoît Durand, a grain farmer, highlighting the radical nature of his trade union-led movement mobilising in their tractors.
Such activists say that around two of their colleagues a day are killing themselves in the face of low pay, rising prices, stringent environmental regulations and other red tape imposed by Brussels.
They are particularly angry at the thoroughly urban nature of the current French administration, headed as it is by President Emmanuel Macron, a former merchant banker who grew up in the city of Amiens, and then Paris.
His Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, is another classic Paris bourgeois who became a millionaire in his 20s when his film producer father died and he inherited part of the family fortune. Even the Agriculture Minister, Marc Fesneau, was born and brought up in one of the more salubrious arrondissements of the capital.
These politicians are perceived as representing an establishment which is far more interested in looking after super-rich industrialists living in gold-stoned Haussmann mansions, rather than rural workers from the provinces.
Macron’s policies have encouraged fierce competition from abroad, they argue, setting up a life-and-death struggle for thousands of farmers. Their country used to take huge pride in its own produce, before Gallic smallholdings were swallowed up by multinational food conglomerates.
Thus some 15,000 extra police, including riot control units in armoured cars, are facing up to the latest classically French dissent. Serious shortages of food would start within three days if there is major disruption, according to official guidance, so the biggest security operation is around the wholesale Rungis International Market, directly south of the city. Providing for most of the restaurants and supermarkets in the area, it is thus nicknamed “The Belly of Paris”.
Rungis is an obvious place to target, because if produce cannot come in or out, then daily fresh food deliveries — the kind the French traditionally insist upon — will stop. “This is the final battle for farming,” said Karine Duc, a farmer from Lot-et-Garonne. “It’s a question of survival.”
This follows weeks of violent direct action in southwest departments that have involved foreign lorries — particularly those from Spain — being set on fire, as well as the ransacking of supermarkets containing products from overseas.
Extreme problems drive extremism, and that is why unorthodox and at times hugely destructive protests are so common in the French agricultural sector. What’s more, such tactics are emerging in neighbouring European Union countries, such as Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as further east in Bulgaria and Poland.
The greatest fear for the French government is that the farmers will unite with agitators from other industries in a movement similar to the Gilets Jaunes — the “Yellow Vests” who brought cities and towns to a standstill with regular rioting between 2018 and 2020.
Far-Right politicians, including Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (RN), also see the farmers as a discontented, fierce, nationalistic community from la France profonde — the country’s “deep” heartland – who are being left behind by the modern world. She has pledged to throw money and support their way if she comes to power, and this is one of the reasons the RN is polling some 10 points ahead of Macron’s Renaissance Party in the run-up to European Parliamentary elections in June.
The nihilistic banners unfurled during the Siege of Paris may currently read, “We will not die in silence,” but many farmers see disruptive figures such as Le Pen as fellow travellers, and thus the key to survival.
Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and academic of Algerian descent, and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic.