The farmers’ anger has boiled over after months of protests over a crisis in the agricultural sector sparked by collapsing beef, pork and milk sales and augmented by a price war with wholesalers.
The upset, which has seen farmers leave their fields and animals to block roads with their tractors and dump manure outside government offices, has also cast a pall on the country’s biggest celebration of its agricultural wealth.
On Saturday, farmers tore down the agriculture ministry’s pavilion, resulting in the arrest of five members of the main farmers’ union FNSEA.
And despite calls for calm, the protests continued when a group of farmers attacked a stand owned by one of France’s biggest agri-businesses.
The farmers blasted the stand of the meat brand Charal with fire extinguishers before dumping about 30 kilogrammes (70 pounds) of flour on it.
Charal is owned by the agribusiness giant Bigard, which has a turnover of 4.3 billion euros ($4.7 billion) and a payroll of 14,000. Last year during negotiations with farmers the group refused to fix a minimum buying price.
“For every hundred euros it gets (for its meat), Bigard pays only eight to the producer,” one of the farmers said, while handing out fake 100 euro notes. “Our job has a cost.”
“When you pay between 17 and 20 euros per kilo ($8.5 and $9 per pound) for meat, you should know that we are only getting two and a half to three euros,” said Pierre Vaugarny, secretary general of the National Bovine Federation, using a handheld loudspeaker.
In a statement Charal said it “understands the farmers’ difficulies, which are related to structural and short-term problems that can only be solved in a collective manner.”
A nine-day event held in vast exhibition grounds in southwestern Paris, the farm show is one of the most popular dates in the capital’s calendar, with an expected turnout of 700,000 people this year.
The attendance reflects France’s love of its rural traditions, even though only a fifth of French people today live in the countryside.
The agricultural sector is a major money-spinner and has political clout to match. For many politicians, a drop-by at the show is essential.
Xavier Beulin, the president of the FNSEA union, apologised for the insults heaped on Hollande on Saturday.
The farmers called him “manure” among several somewhat harsher terms.
“It is not respectable, either for the office (of president) or the individual,” Beulin admitted, adding the farmers were “simply expressing anger, despair.”
Prime Minister Manuel Valls is expected to visit the fair on Monday.
“Obviously, we are putting out an appeal for calm,” said Beulin.
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