French farmers start Champs Elysees protest fires
Angry farmers burned tyres on the Champs Elysees and staged protests across France on Friday to demand action over plummeting prices that have slashed revenues in Europe's agriculture producer.Paris - Angry farmers burned tyres on the Champs Elysees and staged protests across France on Friday to demand action over plummeting prices that have slashed revenues in Europe's agriculture producer.
Dozens of farmers from the cereal plains around the capital set up a barrier of straw bales and burning tyres on the iconic Paris avenue, causing traffic chaos.
"The farm world is dying" said Damien Greffin, head of the young farmers association for the greater Paris region. "People have to be able to make a living from their work."
The FNSEA farmers union said 52,000 people had joined the protests, with milk and meat producers driving hundreds of tractors into cities across the country.
Farmers are demanding a EUR 400-million (USD 600-million) emergency plan from the state to shore up the sector, and a bank pledge to free up one billion euros in loans.
"There has been a state plan for banks, for the auto industry. Now we want one to save French agriculture," said the regional farm union chief in the western city of Poitiers, Dominique Marchand.
France is the biggest farm producer in the 27-member European Union, generating EUR 64 billion in 2007, almost a fifth of the EU's production, and employing 770,000 people, government figures show.
But the sector is reeling from a collapse in agricultural prices, which fell 15 percent this year, according to France's statistics agency INSEE.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has admitted farming is battling its worst crisis in 30 years, with revenues set to tumble between 10 and 20 percent in 2009.
In an interview with Le Figaro newspaper on Friday, Sarkozy pledged to take "strong action" this month.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said Thursday France needed to support "a strategic sector, not only for France but for the whole European Union."
"Who is going to feed the world if not European farmers?" he asked.
Hundreds of tractors staged go-slow protests on highways around Toulouse, Montauban and Carcassonne in southwest Friday, causing long commuter tailbacks, before heading to a rally in the centre of Toulouse.
Other tractor rallies were held in the central city of Clermont-Ferrand, Nantes on the Atlantic coast, as well as Lille, Metz, Dunkirk, and several other towns.
In Poitiers, tractors dumped more than 100 trailers of earth, turning the main road leading to the city hall into a fresh-ploughed field.
Farmers in France and Germany have led Europe-wide protests over dairy prices -- which have halved in some countries since 2007 -- pouring truckloads of milk onto streets and using cows to block roads.
Twenty of the 27 EU countries say they back efforts to inflate prices for milk, butter, powdered milk and cheeses.
Paris region farmers are demanding wider EU action to raise all producer prices.
They also want the European Union to enforce minimum labour costs across the bloc to halt what they see as unfair competition.
A tonne of wheat currently fetches a market prices of nine euro cents, despite costing 14 cents to produce in France, they say.
France is the biggest beneficiary of the EU's massive farm subsidy system, the Common Agricultural Policy, receiving EUR 10 billion last year, ahead of Spain with EUR 7.1 billion and Germany with EUR 6.6 billion.
The French state has been rapped for systematically granting fruit and vegetable farmers funds intended to help cope with short-term crises, and was asked this year to recover EUR 330 million paid out between 1992 and 2002.
Farm unions have warned they will take to the streets if the government forces them to pay back the money.