Angry French farmers heckle Hollande at Paris Agricultural Fair
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Angry farmers heckled President François Hollande before tearing down a government stand Saturday as France's annual agricultural fair kicked off against the backdrop of the "worst crisis ever" facing the country's farmers.
Livestock farmers booed and whistled as Hollande and Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll made their way through the vast hall in southern Paris, walking past a large banner reading: "I am the best in my profession but my passion is no longer enough."
After months of protests across the country that saw farmers blocking roads with their tractors or dumping manure outside government offices, security was tight outside thevenue. Still, around 9:30am, dozens of protestors from the main farmers union, FNSEA, tore down the stand belonging to the French agricultural minister before being stopped by the CRS, French riot police.
Two farmers were arrested, according to FNSEA representative Damien Greffin.
Hollande acknowledged that the crisis facing farmers is "exceptionally hard, exceptionally long, exceptionally generalised".
He added: "To come and exhibit in the context of so much difficulty and pain is a lovely act of patriotism. It is not compliments that farmers want but lasting policies."
Laurent Pinatel, spokesman of the national small farmers group Confederation Paysanne, told AFP earlier: "Agriculture is experiencing its worst crisis ever."
FNSEA head Xavier Beulin said he would "remind (Hollande) of the depth of the crisis".
"There is a lot of worry on the farms, a lot of people are quitting (because) they feel there is no future," Pinatel said, noting that 5,000 farmers are leaving the sector each year.
The beef, pork and milk sectors have seen prices collapse because of declining sales to China and especially the Russian embargo on most Western food imports in retaliation for sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
Grain and vegetable farmers are also feeling the pinch, especially wheat producers hit hard as world prices nosedive.
In addition, wholesalers, which have been engaged in a price war for several years, are demanding ever deeper cuts from suppliers, who are in turn squeezing farmers.
Meanwhile, a mild winter has upset the apple cart for many growers, who are bringing produce to the market before they can find buyers.
Pathogens heaped further woe on livestock farmers, with bluetongue disease ravaging cows and an outbreak of bird flu leading to several countries banning imports of foie gras.
'Political beauty contest'
The Salon de l'Agriculture is a must on the calendar of any ambitious politician, and with an election just 15 months away, the glad-handing -- and the "stroking of cows' behinds" made virtually compulsory by the earthy president Jacques Chirac -- will be the order of the day.
But FNSEA warned: "It's out of the question for the fair to become a political beauty contest once again."
Le Foll said he planned to "be respectful, available and receptive" to the farmers' concerns. Yet the promises may be too late for his ratings. A majority of French people think that Stéphane Le Foll is a "bad” minister of agriculture, according to an Odoxa survey, published in Le Parisien and France Info on Saturday.
Le Foll, who is also the government spokesperson, was voted “overall, a bad minister” by 53 percent of those polled while only 23 percent responded that he was “overall, a good minister”. A further 23 percent said they didn’t know that he was minister of agriculture.
Nearly 700,000 visitors -- a third of them children under 12 -- are expected to descend on the vast Porte de Versailles exhibition centre for the nine-day fair.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)