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Protests over French 'ecotax' turn violent

Photo: AFP

Protests by French agricultural workers in Brittany over plans for a new road tax turned violent on Saturday, with two demonstrators and a police officer injured. Protesters say the “ecotax” will further damage their already struggling industry.


Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets during violent clashes with agricultural workers in France on Saturday, protesting over plans for a controversial new tax on heavy road transport.

Between 500 and 1,000 demonstrators, including farmers, business owners and truck drivers, gathered in force in the Finistère department in west Brittany to voice their anger over the so-called “ecotax”.

Protesters set fire to hay bales and stacks of tires next to the ecotax toll gate at Pont-de-Buis, the only one still functioning in the region after the other two were put out of commission by acts of sabotage in recent months.

Others spilled truckloads of cauliflower onto the road, while more than 250 vehicles including trucks, tractors and trailers were also used to block the route.

As riot police arrived to quell the protests, demonstrators hurled eggs and flares at the security forces, who responded with volleys of teargas and shots from Flash-Ball weapons – controversial hand-held devices that fire non-lethal rubber bullets.

One protester had to be evacuated by helicopter after his hand was injured by a teargas grenade, AFP reported, while another was taken to hospital after being hit in the neck by a Flash-Ball shot.

A policeman also suffered a slight injury after being hit by a projectile, said the prefect for the Finistère department, Jean -Luc Videlaine.

The demonstrations lasted for several hours, before protesters were finally dispersed shortly before midnight.

‘A powder keg ready to explode’

First introduced by the former French government under Nicolas Sarkozy, the ecotax aims to encourage the use of more environmentally friendly transport.

Due to come into effect in January 2014, it will see an additional levy placed on transport over 3.5 tonnes.

The tax is deeply unpopular in Brittany, whose agricultural industry is a vital part of the region’s economy.

Unions and farmers say the new levy will increase the cost of transporting their products to market and shrink revenues at a time when industry is already suffering from an economic downturn.

“We need authorities to realise we're at the end of our tether, and we'll continue until the ecotax is removed, so we can take care of our other problems,” said Pierre Balland, president of the Finistère branch of the MEDEF union.

Several demonstrations against the levy had already been held in the region before Saturday’s protest, while an IFOP poll for French weekly Dimanche Ouest-France revealed Saturday that 74 percent of Bretons are against the ecotax.

“Everything here is based on agriculture and the food industry and everyone feels concerned,” Pierrick Henry, protester and owner of a charcuterie business, told Reuters.

“It feels like a powder keg ready to explode,” he added.

Among Saturday’s demonstrators were workers from Brittany’s meat processing industry, which has suffered from several plant closures and workforce reductions in recent years.

Gad, a pork slaughterhouse and packing firm in Finistère, recently announced it would transfer or lay off close to 850 workers, while Breton poultry giant Doux last year let go of 900 workers in the region.

“What we see today is Brittany on fire – and this is only the beginning,” Nadine Hourmant, a representative of the FO union at Doux, told Reuters.

More demonstrations against the ecotax have already been planned for next Saturday.

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