The anger of the French countryside, which threatens to boil over, has already reached the gates of Paris, and the new Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, is doing his best to stop a protest that the far right is using with a view to the European elections. in June. The response to the unrest came in the form of an announcement made by the young Attal this Friday in the southwest of France; It is a battery of measures aimed at easing the financial burden and bureaucratic obstacles facing the sector. It is above all a seduction operation to convince farmers that there is nothing more important than them and that the Government will do what is necessary to respond to their demands. This is not convincing: the main union, the FNSEA, claims to maintain the mobilization.
“We have decided to put farmers first,” Attal said in a speech at a cattle farm in Montastruc-de-Salies, a commune in the Haute-Garonne province. And he repeated several times, in case anyone didn’t understand, the key concept: “Above all.” Especially everything else. Then he added: “France, without agriculture, would not be France. » Meanwhile, traffic closures have multiplied on dozens of highways and roads across the country. The blockades began just over a week ago on a highway south of Toulouse and during that time it became the first crisis that Attal, a 34-year-old professional politician, has faced since President Emmanuel Macron appointed him on January 9.
On Thursday, the FNSEA counted 75,000 farmers mobilized and 41,000 tractors in 85 of the 101 French provinces. There were violent actions, such as the burning, during a demonstration this Friday, of a Mutua Social Agricola building in Narbonne, in the south of the country. On Tuesday, two people died – a 54-year-old farmer and her 14-year-old daughter – after a car accidentally crashed into a roadblock in Pamiers, near the border with Spain. The barriers at the five access points to Paris, for the first time this Friday, should have been a warning: the movement could grow and, if necessary, enter the capital.
It is a popular movement, with symbolic capital – farmers and peasants feed the country, connect it to the land, preserve its essences – which is the envy of other sectors. It is also a movement that has decades of experience in blocking roads and other forms of protest: the agricultural demonstration It’s almost a trademark of France. It is a rather conservative movement which has always benefited from the goodwill of the authorities. The farmer is listened to, he is respected. In part of the left, critical of the heavy hand of the police in social or environmental demonstrations, and frustrated by so many rejected demands, this is seen as a relative grievance.
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Among the measures intended to appease the anger of the countryside, Attal announced the reduction of bureaucratic obstacles and sanctions for manufacturers and department stores which do not respect the equitable distribution of income with producers. The main measure is the elimination of the rate increase on diesel used by tractors, one of the demands that sparked the protest. It directly touches on the dilemma of certain leaders: how to fight climate change without harming certain sectors, sometimes the most disadvantaged. This is not the case for all farmers, nor for all agricultural sectors, but many complain about falling incomes, bureaucratic overload and international competition. And they feel unfairly sidelined by environmentalists.
The protests gave them a visibility they had not had for years, and at a time when countries like the Netherlands or Germany have experienced similar mobilizations. There is a common denominator: the rejection of environmental regulations that they believe harm them, and the search for recognition. These countries also share the good positioning of the far right for European women. And the image of a polarization between city and countryside; the elites and the people. I remembered the yellow vests Frenchman, who in 2018 put Macron on the ropes. But the differences are considerable: farmers are organized into powerful unions and have practiced negotiation.
However, the speed with which the protests erupted worries Macron. A little more than six months after the riots in the multicultural suburbs, a year after the start of the demonstrations against pension reform and five after the the yellow vests, The last thing the president wants is another social crisis. And worse still, in the countryside, which has so much symbolic meaning in France. Attal, for his real debut in power, rolled up his sleeves this Friday and fell into the mud. In his speech at the farm, he launched a panegyric, with patriotic overtones, of agriculture. And he went to a blockage point on the A64 motorway to debate with farmers.
“I got the message,” he said. “I heard you.” The president of the FNSEA, Arnaud Rousseau, responded: “What was said this afternoon does not calm the anger, we must go further.” Attal’s success or failure in managing the crisis could mark his time at the head of government. It’s on trial.
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