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French farmers blockade Lyon despite Hollande pledge

Philippe Desmazes / AFP I Farmers block the A6 motorway north of Lyon

Hundreds of furious farmers blocked access roads to France's second city Lyon with their tractors Thursday, unimpressed with a 600-million-euro government package to ease their financial plight sparked by falling prices.


Faced with a growing political crisis, President Francois Hollande added to his schedule an impromptu visit to the eastern city of Dijon to meet officials from top agricultural unions.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, the president described the emergency package as "vital" for an industry in crisis.

He urged local restaurants and cafes to "buy French", complaining that "in cantines, two-thirds of food still does not come from France."

Hollande also announced that he and his ministers were in the process of a sales drive around the world -- notably in China and north Africa -- to encourage other countries to snap up French exports.

"I will be going myself to China at the beginning of November, to support our dairy producers," he added.

Farmers should be valued as business-people who "work hard to make sure that our food is of good quality and that our country can shine due to its excellence," said Hollande.

For several weeks, farmers have blocked access to cities, ports and even the tourist hotspot of Mont St Michel to highlight their situation, with many saying they are on the brink of bankruptcy.

On Thursday morning, protesters blocked the two main roads leading to Mont St Michel, one of France's most visited tourism sites.

A combination of factors, including changing dietary habits, slowing Chinese demand and a Russian embargo on Western products over Ukraine, has pushed down prices for staples like beef, pork and milk.

Acutely aware of the power of the agricultural lobby in France, the government reacted on Wednesday with an emergency package worth 600 million euros ($655 million) in tax relief and loan guarantees.

But the packages appeared to fall short of expectations and while some blockading farmers did stop their action, others stepped up their protest.

"The conditions are not in place to lift the blockades," said the FNB union, which represents beef farmers.

And the main FNSEA farmers' union dismissed the package as "insufficient", saying it provided only a short-term sticking plaster, not a long-term structural solution to the industry's problems.

FNSEA president Xavier Beulin warned there would probably be more protest action "in the next two or three days" because farmers "needed to express their anger."

Beulin was to travel down to the demonstration in Lyon, where farmers have stationed tractors on the key roads around the southern city, vowing to block or slow access until at least Thursday night.


Speaking on French radio early Thursday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said it was "essential that prices rise in the beef market."

He called on "everyone to live up to their responsibilities," singling out the abattoirs and food processing industries, which farmers blame for keeping prices low.

The farming crisis has quickly spilled over into the political sphere with the centre-right opposition launching broadside after broadside at Valls during a heated parliamentary session on Wednesday.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, from the centre-right The Republicans party, dismissed the government's emergency proposal as "not up to the task."

The group's parliamentary leader, Christian Jacob -- a former agricultural union leader -- said the crisis plan was a "communications exercise" and "lies."

Valls retorted that Jacob was guilty of "popularism" and said he was not up to the task of dealing with the situation.


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