French police arrest a protester at the "Salon de l'Agriculture" farm fair
Paris - AFP
France's annual farm fair kicked off on Saturday with dramatic displays of anger by farmers facing ruin, with protesters heckling President Francois Hollande and tearing down the agriculture ministry's pavilion.
Five members of the main farmers' union FNSEA were arrested after the protesters destroyed the stand's walls and furniture, the union said.
They wanted to "say loud and clear at the stand... that this country's agricultural producers don't feel like citizens," FNSEA secretary-general Dominique Barreau told AFP. "That's the exasperation, that's where we are!"
Earlier, livestock farmers booed and whistled as Hollande and Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll arrived to start the fair, when the countryside comes to Paris to show off the cream of French produce.
As the pair made their way through the vast exhibition centre in southern Paris, they walked past a large banner reading: "I am the best in my profession but my passion is no longer enough."
Livestock farmers, some wearing black T-shirts reading "I'm a livestock farmer, I'm dying", heckled Hollande, calling him "good for nothing" and "manure" who should resign.
One shouted: "He couldn't care less about us."
"I hear the cries of distress," said Hollande, who plans to seek re-election in 15 months despite dismal approval ratings. "If I am here today it's to show that there is national solidarity."
France has seen months of protests across the country, with farmers blocking roads with their tractors and dumping manure outside government offices.
Hollande acknowledged that the crisis facing farmers is "exceptionally hard, exceptionally long, exceptionally generalised."
He added: "To come and exhibit in the context of so much difficulty and pain is a lovely act of patriotism. It is not compliments that farmers want but lasting policies."
Laurent Pinatel, spokesman of the national small farmers group Confederation Paysanne, told AFP earlier that the French farm sector "is experiencing its worst crisis ever."
"There is a lot of worry on the farms, a lot of people are quitting (because) they feel there is no future," Pinatel said, noting that 5,000 farmers are leaving the sector each year.
The government says more than 40,000 farms are in extreme distress.
The beef, pork and milk sectors have seen prices collapse because of declining sales to China and especially a Russian embargo on most Western food imports in retaliation for sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
Grain and vegetable farmers are also feeling the pinch, especially wheat producers hit hard as world prices nosedive.
In addition wholesalers, who have been engaged in a price war for several years, are demanding ever deeper cuts from suppliers, who are in turn squeezing farmers.
Hollande pledged Saturday to review the law governing relations between wholesalers and suppliers.
Meanwhile, a mild winter has upset the apple cart for many growers, who are bringing produce to the market before they can find buyers.
Disease has heaped further woe on livestock farmers, with bluetongue ravaging cows and an outbreak of bird flu leading to several countries banning imports of foie gras.
- 'Extremely fragile' -
The Salon de l'Agriculture is a must on the calendar of any ambitious politician, and ahead of next year's election, the glad-handing -- and the "stroking of cows' behinds" made virtually compulsory by the earthy president Jacques Chirac -- is the order of the day.
But the FNSEA warned: "It's out of the question for the fair to become a political beauty contest once again."
Nevertheless, Hollande did not fail to make a stop to admire the fair's mascot, a Bazadais cow from southwestern France named Cerise (Cherry).
Nearly 700,000 visitors -- a third of them children under 12 encouraged to pet the animals and enjoy the rural atmosphere, with cocks crowing and hay strewn in the alleyways -- are expected to descend on the vast Porte de Versailles exhibition centre for the nine-day fair.
Despite the widespread despair, exhibitors were loath to boycott the event.
"We are here even if our heart isn't in it," said Florent Dornier of the Jeunes Agriculteurs union. "It's often the only week off for farmers, but they are extremely fragile."