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Environment

Macron reaches out to French farmers as Yellow Vest protests continue

media French President Emmanuel Macron meets with large crowds at the International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture), where he pleaded for a reform of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), 23 February 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

French President Emmanuel Macron has been greeted by large crowds at the International Agriculture Fair, where he came to reassure struggling farmers about plunging food prices and soaring costs.

Macron urged new EU reforms to reinvent the agricultural sector in a bid to protect farmers against competition from the US and China.

"We produce and we don't see the profits. But big processors and supermarkets on the other hand, earn a lot of money," beef farmer René Debons tells RFI.

Debons, who runs a cattle and maize farm in Aveyron, southwestern France, says farmers are paid the same amount for their produce regardless of what they sell it for at the supermarket.

"No one ever asks us what our cost price is. A processor or supermarket tells us 'we'll buy this animal from you and we'll give you this much in return', but often we end up selling at a loss."

Complaints like this were addressed to Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the annual farm show Saturday – an unmissable event for French politicians.

In his opening speech, he replied: "I am aware of the daily challenges facing farmers. Nonetheless, I see that because there's a strong mobilisation... things are starting to improve."

The French government is banking on a new agricultural and food law passed in January to prevent distributors and retailers from selling at a loss and limit price wars that farmers say are squeezing their margins to the limit.

Edith Macke, who heads the union of the Flemish red cattle breed, is not convinced.

"We are still waiting to see the results of this new law," she told RFI, after speaking with Macron.

"The president told us to organise ourselves into sectors, but dairy farmers such as myself are already doing this. In order for us to advance, all actors need to be at the table."

European agriculture 'under threat'

However Macke, who runs a dairy farm in Hauts de Seine, a district just west of Paris, was reassured by Macron's proposals on Europe.

"The president told us that outstanding payments from the European Union would be resolved by May. Currently, there are farms that are going out of business because they haven't received their subsidies."

France is the EU’s biggest agricultural producer and the main beneficiary of its multibillion-euro subsidy scheme (the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP), which risks being slashed from nearly 40 percent of the overall EU budget to less than a third after Brexit.

The EU should maintain an ambitious farming budget with “not one euro less” than at present, after factoring in the impact of Brexit, Macron insisted.

“European agriculture has always been a given, it is today under threat,” the president said in his opening speech, citing the EU’s reliance on imported soybean protein for livestock feed and Russia’s rise as a massive cereal exporter.

Macron has urged the EU to reinvent itself and put agriculture at the heart of its development, in order to be competitive with the US and China.

The 41-year-old was visibly at ease as he strolled among the crowds and animals, taking "selfies" and chatting with farmers.

"Farmers are essential actors of our countryside, of our daily lives," he added, amid concerns over agri-bashing that has seen contempt for farmers grow.

Farmers and Yellow Vests angry

"Environmental campaigners repeatedly accuse us of being polluters, of not respecting animal rights. We feel humiliated," comments René Debons, following a government decision requiring farmers to declare when they use glyphosate, a weed killer suspected by some scientists of causing cancer.

Saturday's annual farm show coincided with the 15th act of Yellow Vest protests over falling living standards.

Eric Drouet, one of the leading public figures of the Yellow Vest protests tried unsuccessfully to approach president Macron to discuss his grievances before being escorted away.

"They told me (the police) that either I take off my yellow vest or I leave. And if I came back, I would be arrested," Drouet told AFP news agency.

He later joined other gilets jaunes protesters at the Arc de Triomphe to protest government policies they see as favouring the rich.

Meanwhile, back at the farm fair, cattle farmer Frédéric Piedagnel says he shares the anger of Yellow Vest protesters.

"We support them, we can't be against," he told RFI, although he distanced himself from the violence that has often marred the movement.

Our social crisis "has existed for years. When a third of farmers earn less than 400 euros per month, you ask yourself where is the logic?

It is not normal that people who work 70 hours a week earn less than the minimum wage.

All we want is to be able to make a decent living" he said.

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