French farmers began moving on Paris this morning, threatening to choke off major highways and to blockade the capital as they demand better working conditions.
For days, nationwide protests have flared in the European Union’s largest agriculture producing country, with farmers angered by insufficient income, red tape and environmental policies they say undermine their ability to compete with less stringent neighbours.
Across France, farmers have used tractors and trucks to block roads and jam traffic.
They plan to step up their pressure campaign by establishing eight chokepoints along the major arteries to Paris this afternoon.
In response, the government ordered the deployment of 15,000 police and paramilitary gendarmes.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told the forces to show moderation, but also warned the farmers not to interfere with strategic spots.
“We don’t intend to allow government buildings, or tax collection buildings, or grocery stores to be damaged or trucks transporting foreign produce to be stopped. Obviously, that is unacceptable,” he said.
Mr Darmanin said protests would not be allowed to affect operations at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, or at the Rungis international wholesale food market south of Paris where armoured police vehicles were deployed today.
Police and gendarmes are also under orders to prevent any incursion into Paris itself, said Mr Darmanin.
The government has been trying to keep discontent among farmers from spreading ahead of European Parliament elections in June, seen as a key test for President Emmanuel Macron’s government.
During a visit to a farm yesterday, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal scrambled again to address farmers’ concerns, after a raft of concessions announced Friday failed to defuse the crisis.
“I want us to clarify things and see what extra measures we can take” to meet farmers’ complaints that they face unfair competition, he said.
Arnaud Rousseau, leader of one of the main farmers’ unions, FNSEA, said he expected to meet with Attal later today.
“Our target is not to annoy French people or to make their lives difficult, but to put pressure on the government,” he told the RTL broadcaster.
Some roadblocks had been lifted over the weekend, but tractor-driving farmers were back early today, gathering at assembly spots to start their drive on the capital.
“What is more important? Art or the right to healthy and sustainable food,” the activists asked.
“Your agricultural system is sick. Our farmers are dying at work,” they said.
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FNSEA and the Jeunes Agricultueurs (Young Farmers) plan to start their siege of Paris around 2pm local time (1pm Irish time) today.
Adding to mayhem on French roads, taxi drivers staged their own protest movement today against what they say is insufficient remuneration for the transport of patients by the French health services.
Their go-slow protests were beginning to choke off motorways across the country, including the A13 leading into Paris.
In neighbouring Belgium, farmers have stepped up their own campaign, blocking a key motorway on yesterday as they too demand better conditions.
Dozens of tractors drove at a crawl through an interchange, halting traffic on the E42 motorway just north of Namur in the south of the country.
Farmers protesting outside a Belgian football stadium also delayed a match between Racing Genk and Sint-Truiden by 30 minutes.
The grievances of the Belgian farmers are similar to those of their French colleagues.
In recent weeks, similar farmers’ protests have also mushroomed in Germany, Poland, Romania, and the Netherlands.