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How I Got Caught Up In The Farmers Protests: An Unexpected End To A Trip In The French Alps

Recent protests by farmers across the EU, have caused disruption and chaos in a number of European cities. Last month I experienced this impact first-hand, when returning home from a ski trip in the French Alps. Although largely peaceful, these demonstrations have caused havoc and raised questions about the role of the agricultural sector across Europe.

In France, farmers are protesting the fact they can no longer make a living due to cheap imports, a lack of subsidies and increased production costs. Despite only comprising 3% of the country’s labour force, French farmers and their protests have established just how much power the country’s agricultural industry has.

Methods of protest have included spraying manure, setting tyres on fire, dumping rotting produce and manure outside government buildings and blocking roads and traffic with tractors.

These demonstrations are the result of built-up anger and resentment within the agricultural community, made worse by Russia’s war with Ukraine and the ensuing spike in prices. 

“Farmers are being burned by debt, squeezed by powerful retailers and agrochemical companies, battered by extreme weather and undercut by cheap foreign imports, for years now – all while relying on a subsidy system that favours the big players”

Although beginning in Poland, the demonstrations have spread across Europe to Germany and France. In 11 countries across the EU, prices paid to farmers fell by over 10% between 2022 and 2023.

Whilst farmers in Germany are protesting government cuts in diesel subsidies, the French are demonstrating against free-trade deals and restrictive environmental rules. They do however share similar objections to increased energy and input prices as well as reduced revenue from their products.

The protests have also been associated with intensified Euroscepticism; a movement promoting distrust of the European Union. However, due to an overwhelming French desire for more influence in the EU, it is unlikely this is a primary motivation for the current demonstrations.

The French are known for their protests and ability to cause maximum disruption; recent events are no exception. Agriculture has played a significant role in France’s “national consciousness” which, combined with President Macron’s unpopularity, explains the latest unrest.

It has been suggested that there are two major explanations for France’s protesting farmers. The first is that they aren’t making enough money and worry that their livelihoods will soon cease to exist. The second is competition and trade agreements between the EU and other countries, which lack the EU’s strict agricultural production standards and consequently increases unfair competition.

Those in France appear to have had some success, with French PM Gabriel Attal announcing a series of concessions, including an agreement not to import agricultural products that use pesticides banned in the EU and new financial subsidies and tax breaks.

These actions have reassured the Young Farmers and National Federation of Farmers’ agricultural unions, the two largest in France.   

Last month, when returning from a ski trip in the French Alps, I was caught up in the farmers protests whilst passing through France’s south-eastern town of Grenoble.

As we approached the city centre, our vehicle was halted by a huge hay barrel, and it soon became clear we had stumbled across a large demonstration of farmers. Rows of tractors lined the streets as fires burned nearby and protestors bellowed through microphones.

With the motorway shut and no alternative route available, our driver left the vehicle and approached the drinking farmers with a handshake. After several minutes of sympathising with their cause, our driver turned back towards our vehicle, followed by a group of the farmers, who all assisted with moving the enormous hay barrel blocking our path.

Not long after passing the first group, we were then stopped by a second group of protestors who it appeared were going to take more convincing to let us through. As the men blocked the road, we were suddenly alerted by an incredibly loud siren, a noise I had only before heard in WW2 films.

Our driver opened his window to speak with the demonstrators, and we were taken aback by the smell of manure. We heard him tell the farmers we had a nearing flight to England, but it did not appear to move them. After more sirens and further negotiation, we were eventually allowed to pass and continue our journey.

There were police everywhere and as we approached the motorway, the sheer impact and disruption of the protests became increasingly clear. Our side of the road was occupied by us and perhaps one or two other vehicles, whilst the traffic moving in the direction of Grenoble, was at a standstill with nothing moving for miles and miles.

Luckily, we did make our flight, but the same could not be said for dozens of passengers trying to get home. Despite not being in any danger, there was something quite intimidating and unnerving about the protests, and we were very glad to be away from the area.

One thing is for sure… the French know how to protest.

Edited by: Kaiyah Ellison

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Prochasson Frederic

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Tags: #France #EU #Grenoble #FarmersProtests


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