FRANCE

Farmers block Champs Elysées to demand government aid

French farmers briefly blocked the Champs Elysées on Friday amid a nationwide wave of protests against falling prices. The main farmers' union has urged the government to provide an aid package and press the European Commission for better regulation.

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REUTERS - French farmers briefly blocked the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris with burning tires on Friday as part of a wave of protests around the country to demand government aid to help them overcome a plunge in their revenues.

The main farmers' union, the FNSEA, called for the protests to press its demand for a 1.4 billion euro ($2.1 billion) package including tax breaks and direct aid to struggling farms.

Pressured by abundant harvests, prices of grain, fruit and vegetables have tumbled. The overall index of agricultural prices published by national statistics office INSEE plunged by 15 percent year-on-year in August.

Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire says this has translated into a revenue drop of 10 to 20 percent for farmers this year.

Le Maire said on France Info radio on Friday that he understood "the distress of all farmers" and was keen to come up with a plan that would help them weather the crisis.

"I will propose a global support plan for agriculture that will include in particular cuts in taxes and levies on 2009 revenues. We will look at what it is reasonable and just to do," he said.

Le Maire has also promised to lobby the European Union for greater regulation of the sector. Many farmers blame deregulation and the phasing out of quotas for their woes.

As Le Maire spoke, protests were under way across France.

In Paris, a few dozen farmers torched tires and pallets on the Champs Elysees, outside the fancy Fouquet's restaurant, where President Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his 2007 election victory with rich friends.

"Sarkozy, is this the price that farmers should pay?" read one of the banners deployed outside the restaurant.

Outside the southwestern city of Toulouse and the eastern city of Nancy, farmers drove their tractors very slowly to snarl traffic.

In an interview published in the newspaper Le Figaro on Friday, Sarkozy promised new measures to support agriculture before the end of the month, but gave few details.

"We are not interested in words anymore, we want concrete action," said FNSEA chief Jean-Michel Lemetayer on RTL radio, responding to the Sarkozy interview.

Friday's protests are also a way for the FNSEA to flex its muscles and regain credibility among farmers, who were disappointed that it did not take a leading role in a drawn-out dispute over milk prices.

 

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