French president Emmanuel Macron tried to soothe the anger of protesting farmers by calling on the European Union to regulate agricultural imports from Ukraine and loosen farming rules.
Macron, speaking on a visit to Sweden as farmers parked tractors across highways in France and set ablaze bales of hay on the road to Toulouse airport, also rejected a draft trade deal with the Mercosur bloc of South American countries in its current form.
The French protests follow similar action in other European countries, including Germany and Poland, ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.
Wary of protests escalating, the French government has already dropped plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel and promised to ease environmental regulations.
"We've asked (the EU) for very concrete things for our farmers," said Macron, who will be at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. He called for a Europe-wide debate on farming rules, in particular to ensure that imported produce meets European standards.
Imports from Ukraine, on which the EU has waived quotas and duties since Russia's February 2022 invasion, and renewed negotiations to conclude the Mercosur deal have fanned farmers' discontent about unfair competition in sugar, grain and meat.
France wants "to have clear measures on imports from Ukraine because today we have in volume and quality things that are destabilising the European market, whether chicken or cereals," Macron said.
Protests Spread In Europe
The European Commission said on Tuesday (30 January) that it was continuing to pursue the Mercosur agreement, a day after Macron's office said it understood the EU had halted talks.
Macron said he did not want the agreement as it is currently drafted to be signed, due to a lack of guarantees that imported products would have to follow similar rules as European ones.
Farmers in France, the EU's biggest agricultural producer, say they are not being paid enough, are choked by excessive regulation on environmental protection and face unfair competition from cheap imports.
Some of their concerns, like competition from imports and rigorous environmental rules, are shared by producers elsewhere in the EU, while others such as food price negotiations are more specific to France.
In a spillover from French protests, Belgian farmers blocked Zeebrugge port on Tuesday. Spanish farmers' associations said they were planning to take to the streets in February, calling for a halt to Mercosur negotiations, among other demands.
Macron also said he wanted more flexibility on some of the EU's joint agricultural rules, including on fallow land.
"Europe must be less fussy with those (farmers) who work hard every day," he told reporters on a state visit to Sweden, adding that he would take this up with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Thursday.
Farmers must meet certain conditions to receive EU subsidies – including a requirement to devote 4% of farmland to "non-productive" areas where nature can recover.
Two EU officials told Reuters on Monday that the EU's executive Commission was looking into changing the fallow land rule, among other options to respond to the farmers' concerns.
French farmers are also looking for concrete support from the government.
"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, also near Paris, a highway was blocked with tractors and bales of hay, with traffic diverted up a sliproad and a queue of cars snaking into the distance.
The regional prefect said farmers had blocked the main road to Toulouse airport, but that people could still access via nearby parking lots. BFM TV said stacks of hay and tyres had been set on fire at a roundabout in front of the airport.