Farmers block France's second city as Hollande bids to ease crisis

Farmers block the A6 motorway with tractors, farm trailers and tyres at the northern entrance to Lyon, on July 23, 2015.
Farmers block the A6 motorway with tractors, farm trailers and tyres at the northern entrance to Lyon, on July 23, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Hundreds of furious farmers on Thursday blocked access roads to France's second city Lyon with their tractors, unimpressed with a 600-million-euro (S$898 million) government plan to ease a dire financial plight sparked by falling prices.

Faced with a growing political crisis, President Francois Hollande added to his schedule an impromptu visit to the eastern city of Dijon to meet officials from top agricultural unions.

For several weeks, farmers have blocked access to cities, ports and even the tourist hotspot of Mont St Michel to highlight their situation, with many saying they are on the brink of bankruptcy.

A combination of factors, including changing dietary habits, slowing Chinese demand and a Russian embargo on Western products over Ukraine, has pushed down prices for staples like beef, pork and milk.

Acutely aware of the power of the agricultural lobby in France, the government reacted on Wednesday with an emergency package worth 600 million euros in tax relief and loan guarantees.

But the packages appeared to fall short of expectations and while some blockading farmers did stop their action, others stepped up their protest.

Farmers stationed tractors on the key roads into Lyon, vowing to block or slow access to the southern city until at least Thursday night.

The main FNSEA farmers' union dismissed the package as "insufficient", saying it provided only a short-term sticking plaster, not a long-term structural solution to the industry's problems.

Speaking on French radio early Thursday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said it was "essential that prices rise in the beef market." He called on "everyone to live up to their responsibilities," singling out the abattoirs and food processing industries, which farmers blame for keeping prices low.

The farming crisis has quickly spilled over into the political sphere with the centre-right opposition launching broadside after broadside at Valls during a heated parliamentary session on Wednesday.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, from the centre-right party "The Republicans", dismissed the government's emergency package as "not up to the task." The group's parliamentary leader, Christian Jacob - a former agricultural union leader - said the crisis plan was a "communications exercise" and "lies." Valls retorted that Jacob was guilty of "popularism" and said he was not up to the task of dealing with the situation.