French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has said he is implementing controls on foreign food products in order to guarantee “fair competition” amid farmers’ protests.
In his general policy speech at the National Assembly on Tuesday, Attal told lawmakers that “the goal is clear: guaranteeing fair competition, especially so that regulations that are being applied to [French] farmers are also respected by foreign products.”
He said food retailers who do not comply with a law meant to ensure a fair share of revenues for farmers will be fined, starting immediately.
“We need to listen to the farmers, who are working and are worried about their future and their livelihood,” Attal said.
The prime minister also said he has gathered a coalition of 22 European Union countries to agree on an EU waiver on fallow land.
“We are close to achieving a new extension of the exemption,” he said.
Attal promised that his government stood ready to resolve the crisis “without ambiguity”, and praised the agriculture sector as “our force and our pride”.
Farmers must meet certain conditions to receive EU subsidies, including leaving 4 percent of farmland to “non-productive” areas so nature can recover, which can be done by leaving land lying fallow.
Farmers have for days been demonstrating across France to put pressure on the government to respond to their demands for better remuneration for their produce, less red tape and protection against cheap imports.
Earlier on Tuesday, farmers set hay bales on fire to partly block access to Toulouse airport and parked tractors across highways near the capital, Paris.
Protesters rejected pro-agriculture measures that Attal announced last week as insufficient. The government promised more responses would be forthcoming on Tuesday.
Protesting farmers encircled Paris with traffic-snarling barricades on Monday, using hundreds of lumbering tractors and mounds of hay bales to block highways leading to the French capital that will host the Summer Olympics in six months. Protesters came prepared for an extended battle, with tents and reserves of food and water.
The government announced a deployment of 15,000 police officers, mostly in the Paris region, to stop any effort by the protesters to enter the capital.
Officers and armoured vehicles also were stationed at Paris’s hub for fresh food supplies, the Rungis market.
The government, wary of the protests from escalating, has dropped plans to reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel and promised to ease environmental regulations.
“Whatever happens, we are determined to go to the end,” farmer Jean-Baptiste Bongard said as crowds of farmers huddled together around small fires on a highway in Jossigny, near Paris, blocked by the tractors in the early hours.
“If the movement needs to last a month, then it will last a month,” said Bongard.
In Longvilliers, near Paris, highway carriageways were blocked with tractors and bales of hay, with other traffic diverting up a sliproad.
Belgian farmers, angry about rising costs, cheap food imports, and EU environmental policies, also blocked roads on Tuesday.
A port authority spokesman said protesters had blocked five roads but were letting cars through.
The Algemeen Boerensyndicaat (ABS, General Farmers Syndicate) union called on members to join the protest.
“The farmers are desperate, really desperate. We’ve warned the government for years that this would happen,” ABS policy officer Mark Wulfrancke said.
“We want respect from our government, the European government. The only way to show that respect is to make a policy that is farmer-friendly, food-friendly. We need a correct price,” he told the Reuters news agency.
The Spanish farmer’s associations in Spain announced on Tuesday that they were also planning protests in February against the strict European regulations and lack of governmental support.