Farmers in northern France are blocking the roads where Slovakian-made Babybel cheese enters the country. In the southwest, they’re ransacking trucks bringing meat and fruit from Spain. In western France, farmers formed a roadblock, holding banners that translate to “We want to make a living from our work.” They’ve confiscated hundreds of pounds of meat, dumped manure in front of government buildings and let their pigs run loose inside supermarkets, Vice reports.
What’s next? Storming the Bastille? Beheading royalty? The unrest may not quite reach such 18th-century-level severity, but serious economic issues are nonetheless prompting people to take some pretty drastic actions. Farmers say they’ve had enough of France being flooded with lower-priced products from neighboring countries. As reported in The Guardian, a local leader of France’s top farming union (the FNSEA) told France Info radio that farmers wanted a “level playing field” within Europe.
Globally speaking, farmers face all kinds of challenges. Virtually nowhere is farming a simple, profitable vocation. But in France the situation may be exceptionally ire-provoking, mainly because French terroir — a site-specific confluence of soil, climate and food culture — and the ingredients it produces are held in the highest esteem. Because of this national pride, France has strict and abundant regulations in place to protect each region’s agricultural products, cheeses and wine. But despite such protections, France is experiencing a real crise agricole. Lower-priced goods produced elsewhere in the European Union have caused the prices of French beef, pork and milk to plummet. And given the rise of supermarkets — as opposed to neighborhood purveyors selling regional products — consumers may not even know the provenance of what they’re buying, so they are inclined to grab whatever is cheapest.
Affected farmers are now taking action, and their demonstrations are attracting international attention. Last week, soon after the protests began, the French government unveiled an aid package worth 600 million euros to benefit local farmers. (There are laws that prohibit the government from giving money directly to farmers, but it is permitted to direct money toward tax exemptions and delayed payments.) But the government’s emergency-aid plan has done little assuage the agriculturists’ woes. Farmers tell The Guardian they are also facing “high labor charges, excessive paperwork and the financial squeeze from supermarket chains.”
French president François Hollande has professed his support for the farmers’ cause, saying, “They should know that, protests or no protests, we are by their side.” But his advocacy may not be enough to quell the unrest. Farmers have turned back hundreds of trucks, posing immediate and palpable consequences for the European market. French consumers could face fluctuating prices and possible food shortages in coming days. Suppliers, meanwhile, will have to contend with lost revenues.
Whatever action the French government and the EU might take, a short-term solution may be just a Band-Aid for larger systemic woes that are undoubtedly harder to fix. Will France’s strong culture of terroir prevail?