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France’s farmer protests are a revolt against the City

Young farmers block a highway near Paris on Tuesday. Credit: Getty

January 30, 2024 - 11:45am

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 BelgiumGermany, 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.


Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and academic of Algerian descent, and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic.

NabilaRamdani

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

I sympathize with the farmers and support their cause, but intentionally starving innocent people crosses the line. Even if no one starves, they are threatening the jobs of people in restaurants and supermarkets etc….

It somewhat reminds of the truckers protest in Canada. Although I supported the protest in Ottawa 100%, I didn’t support the border crossing disruptions, which put working class people out of work temporarily.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Sometimes disruptions are all you have left. After years of talking about the problem to no avail, the Texas governor started bussing illegals to sanctuary cities. Today, immigration is talked about endlessly.
The same political class that fretted over the truckers then and the farmers now said nothing when BLM and antifa rampaged in city after city. Funny how productive people who don’t burn things down are seen as worse than the criminals who loot for no reason.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

They dumped soil all over the road.
Also hypocrisy isn’t an argument and anti-hypocrisy isn’t an ideology. Who cares what idiots thought about BLM? The question is whether it’s okay for disruption whether that’s by BLM or white Christian European blood and soil famers or not because you can’t support both.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

When you have run out of options – and the Texas governor again comes to mind – disruptions are your only peaceful recourse. And there is a quite a gap between the magnitude of the disruptions created by farmers vs. those of groups who defaulted to violence and mayhem. We’re fretting over what’s happening while ignoring how it came to this point.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

And I’m sure you were equally charitable of BLM riots…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Mayhem and murder are not persuasive. Should the farmers degenerate into that, I’ll look at them in the same manner.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It wasn’t a question of their persuasive force.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

They are threatening to starve the people of Paris. What’s the difference?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I don’t get it. You can’t support anarchy, even if you agree with the cause. That kinda crap will bite you in the ass.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The Texas governor has not violated the Supreme Court ruling. And he’s not preventing the shipment of oil and gas to the rest of the country.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

and when France protects its agricultural industry, gives farmers fair prices and limits access from other markets – sending food prices rocketing – no doubt it’ll be the Parisian elites to blame again. And Le Pen will promise some magical solution that will only be revealed once it’s too late to kick her out of power for lying about a fantasy.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The cheap food is cheap because the costs are felt elsewhere. I’m in Canada – agri landscape is pretty grim. Supermarkets are terrible. And all that food intolerance I thought was a fad, is real

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

I know. I’m happy to pay for quality and local produce and do (I’m fortunate to have the means to!). But that’s exactly the point. If French farmers want to maintain quality and receive a good price for their food then French consumers have to be willing to pay a lot more. There’s no way around that.
And this is before we even talk about the huge subsidy they receive from the PAC.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago

Can you explain the food intolerance part of your comment? I’ve recently discovered that I’m probably gluten-intolerant. Like you I once thought it was all a fad but since I cancelled out gluten from my diet, a whole number of minor complaints have simply vanished. I’m curious as to whether this is a ‘me’ thing or if something has changed in food production.

Matt M
Matt M
2 months ago

I have watched a number of videos recently which compare the price of US and UK food. This is a particularly well made one. The filmmaker found the same basket of products were 32% cheaper in the UK. I found this surprising as the US is said to have pretty intensive and polluting agricultural methods compared to Britain and I had assumed this industrial scale would drive down prices. But I went to the States three times last year and the price of food was shocking even to my inflation-jaded eyes. What explains it?
The UK is also cheaper than most European countries (on par with Germany and the Netherlands) and much cheaper than France. I wonder how it compares to Canada.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 months ago

These protests are a very good thing. An awakening of the working classes and a long-awaited response to the Laptop Class’s outright contempt for productive sectors of the economy.
The bourgeoisie inside the périphérique won’t actually starve. But they might have to get by for a little while on plain pasta and tinned beans. Perhaps that will be enough to remind them of where their food actually comes from?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Yeah and when the French farmers go out of business maybe they’ll be reminded where their money (and subsidies) came from.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 months ago

Macron, along with other WEF stooges and carbon-obsessed ‘green’ maniacs, is waging a global war on farmers. If they get their way and destroy farming in the name of ‘saving the plannett’ from the carbon bogey, EVERYBODY will starve (or eat ze bugs).

If French farmers have decided to give witless city dwellers (who don’t seem to know where their food comes from) just a taste of what going hungry really means as a wake-up call, then I say more power to them. If only Irish, British and other European farmers could show the same gumption.

Do not bite the hand that feeds you!

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 months ago

“President Macron has driven rural workers into the arms of Marine Le Pen”

And again with the stupid headlines… Is this all that some headline-writing numpty can find to care about in the article?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago

You nailed it!

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago

The press has always been to the left of governments and proud of it. Now the press is to the left of leftist governments and is proud of it, not noticing that it is licking the governments’ asses.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

This isn’t really related to carbon. That’s one element of it but it’s more about regulations and red tape that are connected to environmental realities more generally than the reality of our fossil fuel decadence.
I have lived and worked in France. They are extremely conscious of where their food comes from and actively favour domestic produce in a way that Brits certainly do not. But they are also price conscious and there is a limit to how willing they are to pay extra to subsidise a romanticised and outdated industry.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I would tend to agree with your comment about not subsidizing a romanticized and outdated industry, but when it comes to fresh food, I favor a local approach, given what happens to supply chains during times of global turmoil. Especially on the doorstep of WWIII.

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Supermarket food is just about the only stuff that’s cheap in Paris.

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
2 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Only abject fools refuse to see what is going on: independent farmers are driven out of business in order to control the masses through massive industrial production. This happens out of purely authoritarian motives regardless of whether these motives are climate change hysteria or mere greed of parasitic bureaucrats and industrialists.

Robbie K
RK
Robbie K
2 months ago

Do you get equally passionate about polluted rivers, diminishing birdlife, droughts and flooding? If so, you might want to give consideration to why farming needs reform.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
2 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes I do. And it’s not a simple binary. Farming might need to reform – it doesn’t need to be eradicated!

Robbie K
RK
Robbie K
2 months ago

Why would anyone want to eradicate farming? Duh.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I think most people are concerned about those too, but not to the point where they are prepared to go without food.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Concern for all these things is a luxury that will quickly be discarded in the face of any serious food shortage. Surely you understand that, so when you say ‘reform’, I hope you mean something other than simply passing a bunch of onerous regulations that drive small farmers out in favor of corporate farms, because corporations will, I repeat, will continue to find the cheapest workaround which will, I guarantee, create other externalities on a large scale. At best, it will simply shift the problems from the issues you mention onto other issues or make environmental problems into social or economic problems.
A better solution, IMHO, is to break up large conglomerates, embrace trade barriers to discourage monoculture farming because different crops have different environmental impacts, water requirements, etc., support for research into better farming practices, newer methods of pest control, better pesticides, fertilizers, etc., subsidies and tax breaks for farmers to use better methods and favored products, and, finally to end the weird and unscientific European opposition to GMO crops, many of which were modified specifically to have less environmental impact.

Robbie K
Robbie K
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I hope you mean something other than simply passing a bunch of onerous regulations that drive small farmers out in favor of corporate farms

It was established some 25 years ago that sustainable agriculture should be in the form of medium sized farms. (Agenda 21) Which goes on to support many of the things you mention – apart from GMO crops, which are specifically designed to use pesticides that destroy precious soil structures – quite ironic you support the use of this stuff yet criticise corporate abuses.

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Sigh… I was not aware of companies using GMO foods to sell more pesticides as you describe, but it makes perfect sense given its the same damn companies selling both the seeds and the pesticides. Disappointing but not surprising. Given that you are better informed on the subject than myself, I will defer to your knowledge on the subject. If, as you say, the GMO crops are actually unhelpful to farmers and the environment, then no I wouldn’t back them. I’m in favor of crops that are designed to NOT need pesticides and use less water and that sort of thing, the sorts of things I used to read about in Scientific American a couple of decades ago. I’m fine with banning particular GMO crops for actual scientific or environmental reasons such as the sort you mentioned. I thank you for informing me on a side of the subject I was not aware of. I stand educated. I honestly wish more progressives were as well informed as you. I don’t agree with you often, but I appreciate what you bring to the debate.
What I don’t approve of is blanket opposition to ALL GMO crops for no reason other than superstition. I have a pretty strong suspicion 90% of the people who oppose GMO crops are not as well informed as you and just afraid of ‘frankenfoods’ without their fear having any rational basis, and I have a great dislike for mindless crowd following sheeple.
My anti-corporatism trumps about the rest of my politics these days. In that way I’m almost closer to Sanders than many conservatives when it comes to economics. The problem with corporations is they have gotten so large and powerful that they have warped capitalism into something very much different than Adam Smith or classical liberalism ever contemplated. They should all be broken into smaller pieces to encourage competition. If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big to exist at all in my opinion.

Stephanie Surface
SS
Stephanie Surface
2 months ago

The German farmers didn‘t quite go so far as refusing to provide food to the nation, but they were quite a fierce force against the policies of the current government. They were supposedly high jacked by the Extreme Right according to the Green Party’s Economics Minister. The left wing press are now actually trying to find a policeman, who applauded the farmers.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
2 months ago

He was a fireman, not a policeman (unless we refer to two different stories). But, indeed, the important thing uis: even if they found him, what could be done against him if rule of law is to be respected?
He was waving and bowing to the passing tractors. It would be an absurd to sanction anyone for this.
Btw, I didn’t know they didn’t manage to identify him. Good news – this means that no-one of his colleagues (and there were some nearby) denonunced him.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago

What if people actually start starving? Or more likely, hundreds and hundreds of supermarket and restaurants workers are laid off? I might be of the loudest opponents to net zero on this website, but the way to oppose it is through elections.

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

the way to oppose it is through elections – Like now in Britain to choose between Tory and Labor. Perfect opportunity.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

So what’s the alternative? A popular revolt that installs an authoritarian govt that happens to align with your interests? We live in a democracy. You can’t have special interests hijacking the political process, even if you agree with their goals. Net zero is a destructive and deluded policy that will impoverish millions of people. I’ll take that everyday over an authoritarian regime that keeps me well fed and lowers my taxes. Freedom comes with a price. Right now that price is an incompetent and disconnected political class.

What needs to happen in Britain, and almost certainly will, is the utter and complete destruction of the Tory party. A new party needs to take its place that aligns with the interests of those not served by the current ruling elite. People need to march in the streets and demonstrate.

It sucks that Britain doesn’t have a truly alternative party right now, but it will happen.

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It sucks that Britain doesn’t have a truly alternative party right now, but it will happen.
It would be great, but I’m not sure you have enough time. Democracy may end sooner 🙁

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

Indeed. You understand how the game is being played. Compromise every institution of the nation state and replace it with stakeholder fascism, wherein the corporations control the institutions and the masses are without property and rights depending for their survival on hand outs. Orwell’s 1984 will become reality, for the very simply reason that it leads to a Chinese world domination. Let your enemies destroyt themselves. Use the force of your opponent to hurt him. Old rule from martial arts.

Steve Jolly
SJ
Steve Jolly
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Nice to see someone who still respects the principles of democracy and not just the outcome. If a majority of people want to ruin their country with terrible policies, the principle of rule by the consent of the governed suggests they ought to be able to do so. One has to take a longer term view of these things. History is not decided by any one election. Haley would probably have a better chance of beating Biden in the general election, but I don’t want to see her as the nominee because it’s far more important to keep pushing the donor class out of the party and establishing it as a populist anti-globalist party.

The UK appears to be lagging behind in terms of an opposition party to the political class, but that’s not terribly surprising given that for the past couple centuries the UK has been by far the most politically stable nation in European civilization. Hasn’t been a revolution or any sort of regime change in the UK since 1688 unless you count the American revolution, which I don’t. In this case, I suggest that when its obvious the Labour party doesn’t have the answers, they will fave a similar backlash to the current Tories that will finally allow some of the other parties to gain ground. I still believe there’s a decent chance we see Prime Minister Farage before 2030.

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

There are too many voters who either don’t have the time to care, are too dumb to care or are refusing to care out of fear of the consequences.
These folks need a wake up call and that is what this is.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

When citizens are treated like subjects, they eventually notice. When foreigners with no tie to the country and no desire to assimilate are afforded greater consideration than the natives, the natives eventually notice that, too. And when the high and mighty pass laws and come up with ideas that harm regular people but never the high and mighty, same thing.

Anthony Roe
AR
Anthony Roe
2 months ago

Look at the tractors, Jeremy Clarkson would be impressed. These are not the peasants beloved of the English middle-classes. This is a jostling for position at the public subsidy teat.

Clueless
C
Clueless
2 months ago

I have to keep saying this and am bored with it . The Gilet Jaunes didn’t riot…..hangers on like Blackblok and other anarchist groups did the rioting.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
2 months ago

Aux armes, citoyens!

Madli Kleingeld
Madli Kleingeld
2 months ago

Lot is to blame on globalism. What to think about this :in French supermarket Super U is beef for sale ,for bourguignon at 10.95 euro a kilo. Now look what is the history of this meat …Born in Austria,grown in Argentine, slaughtered in USA and cut for sale in France! Total madness..also why here In France onions for sale are from New Zealand or Australia ???
Also, please state correctly that Emmanuel Macron was only couple of years a banker. He came after years from public service. Now you give an impression that he came right from Goldman Sachs…

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 months ago

Sounds like a reenactment of Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonine.