Last year, the biggest workers’ movement for decades mobilized millions across France in an attempt to defend retirement pensions. This year it is the turn of the farmers to revolt. On Tuesday, 6 000 tractors were present at 120 blockades, and at least sixteen motorways were immobilized. Regional government headquarters have been covered with manure, and a number of hypermarket distribution centres (as well as Toulouse airport) were paralysed. On the day that this article is published (Wednesday, 31st January), a column of two hundred tractors from the South of France is heading for Paris, intending to blockade the main wholesale food market of the capital at Rungis. In every town they pass through, locals express support and bring food. A “siege” of Paris and of Lyon has been announced.
France counts over 400,000 farmers, as against 100 000 in the UK. Over four decades, farmer income has fallen in real terms by 40%, and a quarter of French farmers live below the poverty line. In particular, sheep farmers, cattle farmers and fruit producers are often extremely poor. This, along with unsocial hours and isolation, can have tragic consequences. Statistics show that at least two farmers a week in the country commit suicide.
Slogans painted on the barricading tractors vary. They include the following: “I love my work, but I need to earn a living”, “We shouldn’t import food whose production is banned in France”, “Cattle farmers, wine producers, vegetable growers, one struggle !” or “ We want decent prices, not subsidies!”
Radical action works. The government has already made concessions, reducing taxes on tractor fuel, increasing compensation to cattle farmers hit by disease, and promising to put a little more pressure on the big supermarket chains, who use their market power to pay criminally low prices. This is very far from sufficient, and the vast majority of farmers are determined to continue the movement.
We must not see farmers as a homogeneous bloc. The largest farmers federation, the FNSEA, is dominated by owners of huge farms. The farmers’ movement can put forward progressive demands or reactionary ones. The Left should support moves to guarantee minimum prices for producers and to cut into the mega profits of the food and supermarket industries. But other demands, such as for the abolition of the new rule that 4% of land must be left fallow at any one time, to help restore biodiversity, and similar calls to scrap green regulations, must be opposed.
Defend green options
There are three major national farmers’ federations. The biggest, the FNSEA, (which got 55% of the votes in 2019 elections to choose farmers’ representatives) has a leadership who are hoping that the government will concentrate on scrapping green regulations and increasing agricultural subsidies, subsidies which benefit above all the biggest farms. In contrast, the left wing Confederation Paysanne (20% of the votes) is putting forward demands for minimum selling prices and a reduction of the profits of agrobusiness and supermarket chains. The Confederation says blockades should be mostly aimed at supermarket chains. Both federations are, meanwhile, protesting at new European Union treaties which aim at reinforcing the dictatorship of the market and allowing imports into Europe which are not subject to the same environmental and animal welfare rules as local production is.
Macron is hesitating before sending riot cops in, since the farmers have often been solid conservative voters. His interior minister even declared “We do not respond to suffering by sending in riot police” (which must be surprising news to the many strikers, antiracists and ecologists maimed by police on demonstrations in recent years). And farmers interviewed in the media said they were confident the police sympathized with them. This is likely to change as the actions go on, and armoured vehicles were in place around Paris Wednesday, while fifteen farmers have been arrested near Rungis. The situation is changing every day.
The most radical major workers union, the CGT, has called on its activists to attend farmers’ pickets and blockades and discuss common interests. The radical Left France Insoumise also called for support, supporting demands to freeze the profit margins of the supermarket chains and impose minimum pricing. In some towns left wing mayors have organized meetings in support. But some on the left mistakenly refuse to support the movement because of the right wing domination of the main farmers’ federation.
This week’s radical tactics were inspired by the Yellow Vest movement of a few years back, and by last year’s pensions protests, which were particularly spectacular in smaller provincial towns with a solid conservative tradition.
More and more of the distribution centres of supermarket chains are being targeted as days go by, and this is a welcome development. With a major one day teachers’ strike planned this week, a taxi drivers’ protest growing and bus drivers’ strikes in the offing, let’s hope the farmers’ example leads to more generalized revolt.