By Stephane Mahe, Nacho Doce and Gus Trompiz
PLOUISY, France (Reuters) -Protesting farmers blocked several roads across France on Wednesday to press the government to loosen regulations and help protect them from cheap imports and rising costs.
Farmers said the protests, with long lines of tractors snarling roads and piles of hay dropped in front of a local prefecture, will continue as long as their demands are not met, posing the first major challenge for new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal.
Many farmers in the European Union’s biggest agricultural producer struggle financially and say their livelihoods are threatened as food retailers are increasing pressure to bring down prices after a period of high inflation.
“Our costs keep increasing and this is not taken into account in what we are paid,” dairy farmer Pascal Le Guern said at a road blockade in Plouisy, in Brittany in western France.
Farmers cite a government tax on tractor fuel, cheap imports, water storage issues, price pressures from retailers and red tape and environmental rules among their grievances.
Arnaud Rousseau, head of the powerful FNSEA farming union, told France 2 TV that the group would publish dozens of specific demands by the end of the day.
Fearing a spillover from farmer unrest in Germany, Poland and Romania, the French government has already postponed a draft farming law meant to help more people become farmers, saying it will beef up the measures and ease some regulations.
President Emmanuel Macron is also wary of farmers’ growing support for the far right ahead of the European Parliament elections in June.
“We won’t stop (the protests) until our demands are met,” 24-year old Pierre-Marie Henry, who works on a poultry farm, said at the same Plouisy rally. The EU elections would give farmers some leverage, he said.
“If they want to stay in power…, they need to give us some answers,” he said, taking issue with what he said was unfair competition from cheap Ukrainian poultry.
A small group of French farmers also protested near the headquarters of the European Parliament in Brussels.
“They impose more and more draconian standards on us, but on the other hand our produce isn’t protected,” said Philippe Thomas, 57, a cereals farmer from La Meuse, in eastern France.
As the EU’s Green Deal of environmental policies is rolled out, farmers’ increased work and costs need to be reflected in product prices, said Thomas Waitz, a Green EU lawmaker from Austria, who is also a farmer and beekeeper.
He urged the 27-member EU to make sure imported goods also have to meet high environmental standards to avoid unfair competition.
In France, farmer discontent over price levels is particularly acute in the dairy sector, where producers say the government’s anti-inflation push has undermined legislation known as EGALIM designed to safeguard farmgate prices.
Dairy producers are currently in dispute with Lactalis, the world’s largest dairy group, over prices, and talks with an arbitrator are due on Thursday.
“If the EGALIM law is respected there will be far fewer protests, that’s the case in the dairy sector, I can tell you,” Thierry Roquefeuil, head of dairy farmer union FNPL, told reporters on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Gus Trompiz and Sybille de La Hamaide in Paris, Kate Abnett, Johnny Cotton and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Brussels, Stephane Mahe in Plouisy, Nacho Doce in Castelnaudary; writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)