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Protests by farmers block highways to Paris and elsewhere in France

Jerome Guillem, mayor of Langon, and other French mayors, farmers and wine growers block highway entrances to the town of Langon, toward the A62 highway in Gironde, France, on Jan. 29.
Pierrot Patrice
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ABACA via Reuter
Jerome Guillem, mayor of Langon, and other French mayors, farmers and wine growers block highway entrances to the town of Langon, toward the A62 highway in Gironde, France, on Jan. 29.

CHENNEVIERES-LES-LOUVRES, France — For the second day in a row, thousands of angry French farmers have blocked major highways leading in and out of the French capital. They're calling it the "siege" of Paris.

The protests are part of an intensifying standoff between farmers and the French government. Farmers have slapped the government with a long list of grievances, including complaints about low wages and what they deem to be unfair foreign competition and over-regulation.

To put pressure on French authorities, farmers from across the country have surrounded the outskirts of the capital, blocking at least seven highways with dozens of tractors.

"We are prepared to stay as long as we need to," says Florian Portemer, a 33-year-old sugar beet farmer, one of hundreds of protesting farmers who are camping out on the A1 highway, just a few miles north of the Charles de Gaulle airport.

So far, the blockages have caused only minor delays. The government warns that a major disruption could leave Paris with only three days' worth of food supplies.

"Our goal isn't to bother or to ruin French people's lives, our goal is to put pressure on the government to rapidly find solutions out of the crisis," says Arnaud Rousseau, president of the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants, or FNSEA, one of the country's largest farming unions.

But to get the government's attention, farmers argue they may not have a choice.

Farmers take part in a protest called by local branches of major farm unions, blocking the A35 highway with tractors near Strasbourg, eastern France, Jan. 30, amid nationwide protests called by farmers' unions.
Frederick Florin / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Farmers take part in a protest called by local branches of major farm unions, blocking the A35 highway with tractors near Strasbourg, eastern France, Jan. 30, amid nationwide protests called by farmers' unions.

"Our expenses are going up and up," says Portemer. "There's a general feeling of being fed up. A suffocation linked to all these charges and tight standards."

By tight standards, he means France's complicated web of bureaucratic regulations. For example, farmers say they're frustrated with European Union subsidy rules — in particular, a new requirement to leave 4% of farmland fallow.

Others have complained about skyrocketing energy and fertilizer prices.

Then there's what they say is unfair competition from other countries, which have less strict regulations. French farmers argue this puts them at a huge disadvantage, with merchants favoring cheaper imports that aren't subject to the same controls.

Speaking before France's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on Tuesday, the newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal promised the government would implement controls on the amount of foreign produce brought into France and asked the farmers to end their protest.

"We need to listen to the farmers, who are working and are worried about their future and their livelihood," Attal told lawmakers.

The government has also vowed to give farmers emergency funding and to guarantee them a living wage. But this hasn't been enough to convince the farmers to pack up just yet.

French farmers watch a broadcast of French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal delivering his government's policy statement at the National Assembly, as they take part in a roadblock protest on the A6 highway near Lisses, south of Paris.
Julien De Rosa / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
French farmers watch a broadcast of French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal delivering his government's policy statement at the National Assembly, as they take part in a roadblock protest on the A6 highway near Lisses, south of Paris.

An opinion poll last week showed 90% of French citizens back their protest, which started in the south of France on Jan. 18.

Some of the protesting farmers tell NPR they are barely earning 1,200 euros (about $1,300) a month and are struggling.

But the farmers also say their solidarity has never been stronger. Many have sent up tents, barbecues and portable toilets on the blocked highways as they prepare to dig in for the coming days.

On the A1 highway, farmers convivially gathered over beer, grilled meats and electronic pop music.

"It's a beautiful demonstration," says 50-year-old Pierre de Wilde, a fourth-generation farmer from northern France who is camping out on the highway with his 22-year-old son. He says it's the future of his kids that makes the protests matter. "That's exactly why we're all here...to support the next generation of farmers to come."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Rosman