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Economy

French farmers slam EU as Valls visits Paris agriculture show

media CRS riot police at the Salon de l'agriculture after the agriculture ministry's stand was destroyed on Saturday Reuters/Benoit Tessier

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had an easier ride than President François Hollande when he visited the annual farming fair in Paris on Monday. Hollande was booed and insulted by farmers squeezed by falling prices on Saturday. Valls escaped that humiliation but was still accused of being a "puppet of Europe" and taken to task for allegedly failing to defend crisis-hit French agriculture.

There were a few boos and jeers when Valls, surrounded by heavy security, visited the cattle-breeders' section of the annual Salon de l'Agriculture early on Monday morning but nothing like the level of hostility that met the president on Saturday.

Nevertheless, farmers who had come to show off their beasts and their produce still expressed their anger at a crisis they say is driving them to the wall.

"You're the puppets of Europe!" François, a farmer from south-west France, told him and others criticised the government for not resisting what they saw as Brussels's laissez-faire attitude to the market.

As Valls visited the show, farmers in the south-west Landes region picketed distribution centres for three major supermarket chains, staging a mini-salon with some of their own livestock and inspecting the contents of lorries.

Prices of beef, pork and milk have plummeted over recent months, following the end of European Union milk quotas, trade sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict and fall in demand from China.

And an outbreak of bird flu has hit exports of foie gras.

Negotiations between food processors and supermarkets were due to end at midnight on Monday.

Valls assured farmers at the salon that the government has taken up their case with the European Commission and called for a "chain of solidarity" between breeders, producers, processors and retailers.

"There's a realisation of the depth of the crisis," he told them, pointing out that he had met European commissioner Phil Hogan last week. "The two pillars of Europe were steel and agriculture. This pillar must no collapse."

Valls criticised the "insults and destruction" during Hollande's visit and welcomed "the dialogue we have had this morning, even if it has been tough".

French agriculture - the facts and figures

France is Europe's biggest agricultural produce but French farming is in crisis:

  • Agriculture's share of French GDP has fallen from four per cent in 1980 to 1.7 per cent in 2014, according to the World Bank, but it still added 8.9 billion euros to the balance of trade;
  • Employment in agriculture was 31 per cent of the workforce in 1955, 8.8 per cent in 1981 and 3.3 per cent today;
  • Prices of beef, pork and milk have fallen, due to EU milk quotas ending, exports to Russia and China falling and, according to farming unions, supermarkets squeezing suppliers;
  • Debt for the average farm was 159,700 euros in 2010, according to government figures, and is likely to be higher today.

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