French farmers block Lyon as Hollande bids to ease crisis

23rd July 2015, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of farmers blocked roads to France's second city Lyon with tractors for much of Thursday, angry at a 600-million-euro ($658-million) government package to ease a farming crisis sparked by falling food prices.

Facing a growing political row, President Francois Hollande made an impromptu visit to the eastern city of Dijon to meet officials from the biggest farmers' federations.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, the president described the emergency package as "vital" for an industry in crisis.

He urged local restaurants and cafes to "buy French", complaining that "in canteens, two-thirds of food still does not come from France."

Hollande also announced he and his ministers were in the process of a sales drive around the world -- notably in China and North Africa -- to encourage other countries to snap up French exports.

"I will be going myself to China at the beginning of November, to support our dairy producers," he added.

Farmers should be valued as entrepreneurs who "work hard to make sure that our food is of good quality and that our country can shine due to its excellence," said Hollande.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced government procurement services would "renegotiate all their supply contracts, because we have to be eating French meat."

For several weeks, farmers have blocked access to cities, ports and even the tourist hotspot of Mont St Michel to highlight their situation, with many saying they are on the brink of bankruptcy.

On Thursday morning, protesters blocked the two main roads leading to Mont St Michel, one of France's most visited sites.

"The measures announced yesterday do not go far enough. It's not what we want. We don't want trivial measures, we want prices to rise over the medium and long term," said Vincent Derieux, manning one of the barricades.

Protesters later lifted the blockade around Lyon. They had previously said they did not want to hinder people travelling in the peak of the holiday season.

- Government package 'insufficient' -

A combination of factors, including changing dietary habits, slowing Chinese demand and a Russian embargo on Western products over Ukraine, has pushed down prices for staples like beef, pork and milk.

Acutely aware of the power of the agricultural lobby, the government reacted on Wednesday with an emergency package worth 600 million euros in tax relief and loan guarantees.

But the packages appeared to fall short of expectations and while some blockading farmers did stop their action, others stepped up their protests.

"The conditions are not in place to lift the blockades," said the FNB union, which represents beef farmers.

And the main FNSEA farmers' union dismissed the package as "insufficient", saying it provided only a short-term sticking plaster, not a long-term structural solution.

FNSEA president Xavier Beulin warned there would probably be more protests "in the next two or three days" because farmers "need to express their anger."

- 'Lies' -

Speaking on French radio early Thursday, Valls said it was "essential that prices rise in the beef market."

He called on "everyone to live up to their responsibilities," singling out the abattoirs and food processing industries, which farmers blame for keeping prices low.

The farming crisis has quickly spilled over into the political sphere with the centre-right opposition launching broadside after broadside at Valls during a heated parliamentary session on Wednesday.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, from the centre-right The Republicans party, dismissed the government's emergency proposal as "not up to the task".

The group's parliamentary leader, Christian Jacob -- a former agricultural union leader -- said the crisis plan was "an exercise in spin-doctoring."

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© 2015 AFP

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