LILLE, France—Thousands of French farmers and meat breeders demonstrated in front of the European Commission in Brussels, protesting the increasing difficulty for them to make ends meet.
“Prices are going crazy,” a French pork breeder demonstrating in front of the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, said. “Nowadays, I sell pork at 1.40 euro, whereas I would need to sell it at 1.60 euro to live decently.”
Unfortunately, she is not the only one. Since June, thousands of farmers have demonstrated in Calvados, Ile-et-Vilaine, Manche or Seine-Maritime, demanding the government to improve their working conditions.
Indeed, they are subject to several factors that jeopardize their living conditions. On the one hand, they’re facing pressure from supermarkets engaged in a price war, which has a direct impact on the prices at which farmers sell their products. They aim at selling them at the lowest price possible to attract the maximum number of customers.
“The fact that companies earn money does not bother me,” the president of the milk producers’ federation, Thierry Roquefeuil, said. “But what shocks me is that they think producers want to always sell their raw materials at the lowest possible price.”
Moreover, the reconciliation between the two main French groups (French cooperative of independent retailers Système U and family-run Groupe Auchan) added to the pressure on farmers. “We are paid the same price we were paid in the 1980s,” Paul Auffray, whose job consists of fattening piglets for three to four months, said. “Leclerc (French supermarket) has more power than [French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane] Le Foll.”
French farmers also face competition from German, Irish and Scandinavian farmers who have a cheaper labor cost. And breeding in their countries is intensive.
Farmers are hence trapped between their production that requires time, effort and money, and the lack of interest by medium and large supermarkets, who only seem to care about their own profits, as well as their European neighbors who are more competitive.
French farmers also complain about the amount of fees they need to pay to run their businesses, as well as the large amount of administrative work that make them spend “more time filling papers than driving their tractors,” according to an angry breeder.
Farmers are asking the government to reduce their social security charges, the compliance of prices set during talks between supermarkets, breeders and the government (1.40 euro per kilo of pork and 0.36 euro per liter of milk), and the removal of French laws that European farmers are not required to follow, which would eventually make them less competitive.
French farmers receive subsidies from both the government and CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy, yet they can’t make a living out of their own production.
All of these reasons led 1,700 farmers, according to FNSEA, the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Exploitants Agricoles, to reach the French capital on Sep. 3.
The convoy was composed of several groups coming from different regions of France, some of which had to drive all night to get to the capital. “Paris needs to realize that farmers are in despair,” Stan Dutel, one of the breeders, said. “If we are willing to travel that much to come, it is really because we don’t have anything to lose.”
The convoy caused traffic jams on highways and ring roads, making Paris function in slow motion.
In the afternoon, President of FNSEA Xavier Beulin announced the decisions taken by the government, which consisted of executing an emergency plan, exempting farmers from their debt in 2015, not adding laws beyond European standards and tripling social contributions paid by the government.
Three billion euros in three years will be allocated to French farmers and the sum of social contributions will reach 50 million euros.
But this didn’t seem enough for farmers, who were extremely disappointed. “The last measures haven’t been set up,” Vincent Guérin, a breeder in Calvados, said. “In the end, there is weariness and resentment and we almost feel like all of what we did was useless.”
French farmers are not the only ones protesting. On Sep. 7, thousands of European farmers demonstrated in Brussels to ask for aid at the European Commission. Among them is Richard Reiss, a German farmer who has one of the most modern farms in Europe. But even with his super-productive model, he is still affected by the decreasing prices of milk. “Nobody could imagine that the price of the milk would fall to 25 cents,” he said. “No farmers can resist, feed their family, invest and continue to work in these conditions.”
He also said he had anticipated it all, except the Russian embargo (as a result of the European sanction as part of the Ukrainian crisis) and the Chinese financial crisis – China was the most important importer of dairy products, buying 10 percent of the world production.
The European commission recently responded by saying it would provide dairy producers with 500 million euros of emergency aid during a meeting on the agricultural crisis held by the Extraordinary Ministerial Council of the European Union.
Despite the differences in problems faced by European farmers, real problems have arose and need concrete solutions. “Measures need to be taken,” Le Foll said. “Otherwise 10 percent of French farmers will go bankrupt.”
The pressure experienced by farmers these past years due to many factors, including bankruptcy, have led to a suicide every two days in 2014 in France. No demonstrations will be too much to try to make things change.