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Angry French farmers protest low meat prices with manure, road blocks

Charly Triballeau, AFP | Farmers blocked the A84 motorway near Caen on July 20, 2015

French livestock farmers, furious at falling prices for dairy and meat, used farm vehicles to block access to the tourist hotspot Mont Saint-Michel and two towns in Lower Normandy Monday in a bid to push officials to address the crisis.

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French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll described the situation as an “agricultural crisis”, stating on Saturday that one in ten of all French livestock farmers (some 25,000 farms), are now facing bankruptcy.

Livestock farmers, many located in Western France, have been protesting against the recent squeeze in margins by retailers and food processors, and the government’s lack of response to the crisis.

A large protest began Sunday in Lower Normandy, and grew in momentum Monday, with protests spreading across the region and to neighbouring Brittany.

Almost 300 tractors and farm vehicles, including skips filled with manure, blocked access Monday to the cities of Caen and Lisieux, both located in Lower Normandy. Protestors also blocked access to Mont Saint-Michel, one of the most-visited tourist sites in France.

Some protesting farmers in Caen targeted supermarkets, who they accuse of keeping prices low, and left buckets of manure in front of other businesses in the meat production sector, including a slaughterhouse, a distribution company and a meat-processing plant, who they also believe are part of the problem.

Le Foll offered to meet with the Norman farmers on Thursday in Paris after examining a report on the prices of agricultural products but the angry livestock farmers declined the invitation, saying that they are waiting for the minister to come to them.

“We don’t have the money for the train tickets,” Sébastien Debieu, the secretary-general of the farmers union FDSEA told French TV channel iTELE.

Price hikes don’t reach farmers

There are numerous factors behind the low prices of French meat. Supermarkets want to keep prices low and French farmers are facing increased competition from foreign producers, who have lower production costs.

Meat processing plants are spending more money on both processing and food safety. Finally, French people are eating much less meat there was a 15% percent decrease in meat consumption in France between 2003 and 2010.

However, while livestock farmers saw a six to eight percent decrease in prices in 2014, the amount of money earned by distribution companies didn’t change at all, according to an annual report released by a French observatory created to monitor food prices.

On June 17, retailers and representatives from the food industry agreed to raise the price of meat and dairy so they could pay more to hard-up livestock farmers, enabling them to cover their ever-increasing production costs.

However, farmers say they haven’t benefited from the price hikes. Some distributors recognised there was a problem, but pointed fingers at other members of the complex meat production chain: factories, slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

“We agreed to make significant raises to the buying price, but this money doesn’t seem to be reaching the pockets of the producers,” said Jacques Creyssel, the general delegate for the Federation of Commerce and Distribution (FCD).

Attendees at the June meeting agreed that a kilo of beef would be revalued by 5 cents a week, yet only 7 cents have been gained in an entire month.

“We have called on the government to make sure that this happens,” Creyssel said, calling for increased transparency.

Is buying ‘Made in France’ the answer?

Two days ago, French President François Hollande launched an appeal to supermarkets to “offer consumers quality, and offer farmers a [good] price.” He also announced a new “made in France” label for meat and called on French citizens to do their bit by buying French products.

On July 20, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called for “dialogue” between the actors and said that he felt for the farmers.

“We understand the anger and distress of the livestock farmers. They must know that the government will stand side-by-side with them as we seek a solution.”

However, many farmers, like Dedieu, are dissatisfied with the government’s response thus far.

"It’s been several months since we first alerted officials to the crisis within the livestock sector. It’s clear that no one was listening,” said Debieu on BFM TV on Monday.

For their part, these angry farmers say they will continue to block traffic and leave buckets of manure on factory doorsteps until someone pays attention.

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