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Analyst: Angry French Farmers Will Have To Adapt To Globalization


Farmers in France wreaked havoc across that country last week as they protested falling meat and milk prices. Farmers say they can't compete with cheap imports, and supermarkets demands to pay them less are pushing them out of business. They're being squeezed to the point of going bankrupt. The French government came up with a temporary solution, if only to avoid complete chaos at the height of the vacation and tourist season. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This week, meat and dairy farmers used their trucks and tractors to block highways and major tourist sites, like Brittany's Mont Saint-Michel. Tourists there were forced to park their cars along the road and walk for several miles to the island monastery. Farmers dumped debris and potatoes in front of supermarkets and banks. They burned tires. It was dairy farmer Celestan Rose's (ph) first protest. He told French Television he had no choice.

CELESTAN ROSE: (Through interpreter) Things have been bad for a long time. I work 75 hours a week and I barely make it. I have debts to repay. I'm filled with rage. And at some point, you just explode.

BEARDSLEY: Farmers say their profits are being chipped away by cheap imports and pressure from grocery store chains looking for lower prices and higher margins. The government says about 10 percent of French farmers could be facing bankruptcy. On Friday night, after hours of tense talks between farmers and supermarket chains and suppliers, it was agreed that farmers would be paid more. The slight price increases will go into effect immediately. Prime Minister Manuel Valls says he understands farmers' pain.


PRIME MINISTER MANUEL VALLS: (Through interpreter) The government hears these farmers' despair and cries of revolt. They are, after all, at the heart of our economy and our world heritage. But anger doesn't permit them to do anything they want.

BEARDSLEY: Farmers have been particularly angry about foreign imports from countries with cheaper labor costs. A mob of angry farmers attacked a convoy of British trucks carrying fish from Scotland on a country road at midnight. They pulled the fish out of the trucks and poured diesel fuel on it.



BEARDSLEY: French Television showed one small shopkeeper who came out in the middle of the night in his bathroom to argue with farmers who were dumping manure in front of his shop as they accused him of selling meat from Poland.

"I have to compete with the large supermarkets," he said. Cattle farmer Damian Hosett (ph) says the consumer must be part of the solution.

DAMIAN HOSETT: (Through interpreter) The consumer has his responsibility too. I implore people to buy French and at a decent price where we producers can make a living.

BEARDSLEY: The supermarkets say the farmers' guerrilla tactics aren't helping the situation, and they blame suppliers for offering non-French products and squeezing their margins. Farmers have also been upset about the phasing out of EU milk quotas this year, where they got paid not to produce too much. The French government has refused to give any direct financial aid to farmers so as not to break EU market rules. France has a large agro-industry. At the same time, French people have a deep attachment to their small farms and farmers who are seen as the guardians of an important rural heritage. In a Paris grocery store, financial analyst Michel Dupree (ph) is picking up some milk. He says he's ready to pay a little more to support farmers.

MICHEL DUPREE: (Through interpreter) Everybody has to give some. We have to pay a fair price, but it's not charity. They also have to modernize and be more ecological. And of course, all that has a price.

BEARDSLEY: Dupree says globalization has created a world of uneven rules and unfair competition. But, he says, French farmers, like everyone else, will have to adapt. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.