Farmers torch hay on Paris' Champs-Elysees

Saturday, October 17, 2009
By Rachel Kurowski, AP

PARIS -- French farmers demanding more government help blanketed the Champs-Elysees with bales of hay and set it ablaze Friday to protest slumping grain prices.

About 150 farmers blocked traffic and unloaded hay and tires onto the most famous shopping street in Paris. The protesters set the hay on fire before firefighters quickly extinguished the flames.

Grain farmers were staging protests around the country Friday to call attention to their debt and other difficulties, which have mounted as food prices have fallen from record highs in 2007. Protesters disrupted traffic on several highways, from Toulouse in southern France to Moselle in the northeast.

Jean-Michel Lemetayer, the head of farmers' union FNSEA, appealed to the government for a “major emergency plan” including tax cuts to help French farmers compete with European rivals. Lemetayer also wants US$1.5 billion in loans for farmers, with the interest and fees paid by the government.

Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire appeared ready to meet some of the demands, saying he would urge President Nicolas Sarkozy to reduce the tax burden on farmers this year as part of a “global plan for supporting agriculture.”

“Mr. Sarkozy, agriculture merits as much as the banking or automobile sectors,” the FNSEA union said on its Web site, referring to emergency aid the French government offered banks and carmakers to help them weather the global economic crisis.

Le Maire predicted overall agricultural revenue would drop up to 20 percent in 2009 after a 20 percent drop in 2008, though farmers say the decline this year is the worst in decades.

“We produce at a loss,” said Godefroy Potin of the Young Farmers' Union, protesting on the Champs-Elysees, noting that wheat prices were about US$1.34 to US$1.50 for 2.2 pounds. “We are here to alert the public institutions, to tell them 'you need to reconsider agriculture.'”

Le Maire agreed, in theory at least, with farmers' demands for regulation to keep prices less volatile.

“It is time to take necessary measures that will allow us to stabilize the farmers' revenues in the coming years,” he said, without elaborating.

Agriculture is still one of the most shielded economic sectors in the 27-nation Europen Union, but it has not been able to protect farmers from the global financial crisis that caused demand to crash. EU officials, however, insist they still intend to gradually create freer markets for European farm products.

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