During the last weekend in February, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared at the annual national agricultural fair in Paris. It was his first direct encounter with French farmers since they began blocking roads and driving tractors into city centers in January, and it did not go well. When he tried to speak, he was drowned out by a chorus of boos and whistles that delayed the event’s opening by several hours. Two days after the fair, on Feb. 26, a meeting of European agriculture ministers in Brussels was met by nearly 1,000 tractors in the streets, with farmers lighting tire-and-straw bonfires and shooting fireworks at the police, three of whom were injured. The police responded with tear gas.

Since the beginning of the European farmer protests in January, most media coverage has stuck to a simple story summed up as “the Anger of the Farmers.” In reality, however, much of the anger has been manufactured by industrial agriculture concerns who feel threatened by the European Union’s Green agenda. In France, as in Italy, Germany and elsewhere, the tractor convoys are organized by rich unions with close links to Big Ag, including major landowners, pesticide makers and the finance structures that serve them. The small and independent farmers who are most threatened by EU policy changes seem less “angry” than depressed about being treated as economically irrelevant and politically powerless. 

Since most French people live in cities and only see farmers on television, they have accepted this picture of the generically angry and broadly sympathetic family farmer. Two hundred years ago, France was mainly an agricultural country, and farming is still seen as essential French heritage. The agricultural areas are called “Deep France” (la France profonde) and decades of agricultural policy have firmly established the idea that the farmers need assistance and protection to survive the threats created by modernization and urbanization. Though farming only represents 2% of France’s GDP, its farmers have retained a sterling image. 

How dare national governments and EU politicians try to disrupt a profitable system by stopping the flow of pesticides and chemical fertilizers?

Big Ag has found this image useful as it fights to protect an industrial food economy threatened by the EU’s “Green Deal” package of policies to drastically reduce carbon emissions. While the Green Deal is focused on electric-powered transportation and EV infrastructure, a small part is called “Farm to Fork.” As is normal with EU programs, it moves in stages planned years in advance. This spring was supposed to see the launch of the new phase, marked by a number of ambitious targets. The nation’s big agriculture firms and unions don’t like it at all. How dare national governments and EU politicians try to disrupt a profitable system by stopping the flow of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? That is the real “anger” being expressed in the images splashed across the world’s television screens and front pages. 

This wave of faux-populist protest has caught everyone by surprise, but so far it is Marine Le Pen, leader of the Trumpish nationalist movement, the National Rally, who has managed to turn things in her direction. Visiting the national agricultural fair on Feb. 28, she was all smiles and warmly welcomed by the farmers. 

Here in East-Central France, a region called Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, the first signs of trouble appeared on actual signs: The road signs at the entrances to towns and villages were being mysteriously turned upside down. Orchestrated by the agricultural trade unions, the clever PR move started in the Tarn area and quickly spread across rural France. The message was clear: French agricultural policy is turning the world upside down.

Understanding why they might think this requires a detour through the history of European Union farming subsidies. Along with national subsidies, most aid to French farmers runs through the European Union, whose Common Agricultural Policy has, from its beginning in 1962, been engineered to favor the French. In the 1980s, the CAP represented two-thirds of the EU budget, and while it has been declining, it remains a major financial instrument. Between 2023 and 2027, the CAP is expected to disburse 264 billion euros, or one-third of the total European Union budget, even though the agricultural sector only represents 1.4% of the Union’s GDP. Despite having absorbed Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the other Eastern European states with large agricultural sectors, the largest benefits still go to France. According to Capital magazine, French farming today gets more than nine billion euros per year in CAP subsidies. 

Marion Marechal, Marine Le Pen’s niece and Executive Vice President of French far-right party ‘Reconquete’, front left, joins a demonstration of French and Belgian farmers outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

But this expensive system is no longer serving the people it was conceived to help. However hard Paris tries to preserve the traditional idea of agriculture as a romantic national treasure, 100,000 mostly small and independent farms have closed over the last 10 years. The reasons are mainly generational ones. The small family farm model of peasant farming relies on working from dawn to dusk for minimum wage income. Younger people just don’t want to do it. The farms that have closed have mainly changed ownership, with a drift towards agribusiness that is increasingly run by multinationals. 

The result is that 80% of subsidies now go mostly to a small number of large, industrialized operations. The first major study on land ownership conducted in 30 years recently found that most French farmland — 16 million hectares — is rented from mostly anonymous investors, including supermarket chains and pension funds. Independent, family-based peasant farmers become tenants if they don’t give up completely, and the CAP becomes yet another mechanism to make rich people even richer. Without family capital, the traditional father-to-son pattern is broken. All that’s left is corporate power. And that power is not at all happy about EU plans to disrupt the status quo. 

Despite the name, the Green Deal is not primarily concerned with agriculture. Its aim is to turn Europe into a zero-emission continent based on renewable energy — the so-called Green Transition to carbon-neutral growth. Electric vehicles, electric ships and reduced use of aviation fuel are important elements, but national and international infrastructure projects are the big money-spinners, plus schemes to compensate heavy industry for the expense of adopting green policies. 

All farmers, large or small, hate the growing EU bureaucracy associated with the new green policies. But the real issue is not paperwork. It’s the EU’s bold plans to save the planet. Indeed, the ambitions are revolutionary. “We have proposed stronger rules on industrial emissions, ambient air, surface and groundwater pollutants, treatment of urban wastewater and soil. They will ensure a significant pollution reduction by 2030 as a step towards the long-term objective of zero pollution in 2050,” said Maroš Šefčovič, executive vice president for the European Green Deal. “The plan will strengthen the EU green leadership, whilst creating a healthier, socially fairer Europe.” 

All farmers, large or small, hate the growing EU bureaucracy associated with the new green policies. But the real issue is not paperwork. It’s the EU’s bold plans to save the planet.

The EU reforms seemed to be moving smoothly forward until the protests. On Feb. 1, the day European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced new restrictions on pesticides and other climate-related targets, more than a thousand tractors blocked the streets of Brussels. After the protests swept through Europe, the EU backed down. Before the end of the week, von der Leyen had declared that the Union was dropping the goal of halving pesticide use by 2030. 

It is often said that the EU has no reverse gear, and von der Leyen’s announcement was the first time that an organized agricultural lobby has attempted — and succeeded — to force Brussels to perform such a humiliating U-turn. 

The loss to the environment was significant. The next phase of the Green Deal and Farm to Fork was supposed to include a number of other impressive targets for 2030, including a 50% reduction of “nutrient losses” (meaning slurry pollution of groundwater); a reduction of chemical fertilizers by at least 20%; a 50% reduction in antibiotics for farmed animals and fish; and an increase of organic farming to 25% of agricultural land. 

But the defeat on the pesticides target was a major blow to the entire project. The European branch of the Pesticide Action Network called the decision a victory for “for an appalling opposition led by the agro-chemical industry, against a more healthy, future-proof agriculture for the EU.”  

My corner of la France profonde is full of farms, so when the protests started, I thought it would be easy to find some of the farmer anger that everyone was talking about. However, what I mostly discovered talking to local farmers was indifference. “Oh no, I’m too old for that.” “Who cares?” “I don’t have time.” I approached the mayor of the next village, Serge Boitard, to see if he could suggest someone involved in the resistance. He tried to put it diplomatically. “They all have work to do. They can’t just stop everything to go and build barricades.” When I pointed out that there were about 100 trucks backed up by a blockade of tractors just 10 miles down the road, Boitard shrugged. “We don’t know who they are,” he said. 

Many of the machines blocking local traffic were hugely expensive new models from John Deere, Fendt, Claas and other international manufacturers. These are a far cry from the 40- or 50-year-old tractors driven by most small farmers in my area. The ones leading the current protests are mostly luxury-class, with comfortable, air-conditioned cabs and state-of-the-art computerized engines. The biggest and most powerful models — such as the Fendt 933 that led a protest convoy in Italy — cost more than a new Lamborghini, often reaching upwards of a quarter-million dollars. The next generation of fully autonomous AI robot tractors cost twice as much. 

These debt-financed tractors symbolize the wider takeover of agriculture by multinational capital, says Thomas Maurice, a 40-year-old goat farmer and regional spokesman of the Peasant Confederation, an organization of small farmers. “President Macron was elected talking about agriculture 2.0, about the start-up nation,” says Maurice. “He believes in techno-solutions, in GPS, robot systems. There’s a whole economic ecosystem around farmers — the banks, management organizations, cooperatives — that has an interest in putting farmers into debt, in making farms bigger and with fewer environmental standards.” 

Farmers make barricades after blocking a highway during a protest near Mollerussa, northeast Spain, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Government statistics support this analysis. French Ministry of Agriculture figures show a steady drift since the 1980s away from small, mixed, environmentally friendly farms to larger operations, especially cereal farms, which now comprise a majority of French farmland. The change in the average surface area of farms over the same period is spectacular: from 19 to 59 hectares, the main mechanism being the purchase of land and subsequent consolidation into larger operations. 

Industry lobbyists and supporters play an important role in this. In France, the prime mover in the protest movement is the largest agricultural union, the FNSEA, which claims to speak for “all farmers” or “the whole sector.” Together with their youth wing, the Young Farmers, they designed up the upside-down road signs campaign. The head of the union, Arnaud Rousseau, is a large-scale cereal farmer and CEO of the Avril Group, an agri-business multinational operating in 19 countries, with an annual turnover of 9 billion euros. The previous CEO, Xavier Beulin, was known as “the real Minister of Agriculture” and made no bones about the union representing the agriculture industry rather than struggling small farmers. After Beulin’s death, Christiane Lambert took over the leadership of the FNSEA after rising through a Catholic Farmers Association. Generally considered friendlier to green issues, FNSEA remained a staunch supporter of pesticides during her tenure. When Rousseau took up the leadership in April 2023, the natural order was fully restored: a farmer’s union directed by the CEO of an agribusiness multinational, who continued to serve its interests while pretending to care about traditional family farming. 

“The FNSEA are interested in protecting an agricultural system that is set up and maintained by [themselves] and the agro-industrial lobby,” said Maurice from the Peasant Confederation. “This system creates privileged people, as we clearly saw during the demonstrations: Grain growers. Pig farmers. Anything on an industrial, international scale.”

 “The FNSEA are interested in protecting an agricultural system that is set up and maintained by [themselves] and the agro-industrial lobby.”

But there are signs of greener and more authentic grassroots resistance in the Europe-wide protests. According to France’s leading progressive newspaper, Libération, the FNSEA union is struggling to maintain control and undisputed leadership of the nation’s farmers, some of whom support the thrust of EU policy. Macron and his ministers are talking to the Peasant Confederation and other smaller regional organizations who want to challenge the FNSEA stranglehold. 

The FNSEA naturally sees things differently. In their telling, they are the true voice of French agriculture. The regional head for this département, Jacques de Loisy, 51, explained by telephone that the influence of the “ecologist ideology and its lobby” is to “lower production and revenues with no sufficient scientific basis. There has never been any health scandal or crisis associated with cereal farming in France, but now we are their number one target.” 

He singles out the Farm to Fork project in Brussels, but his real anger is directed at the French government and its policies. 

“There are thousands of regulatory texts now, and it’s not just the paperwork. It’s the content and the implementation,” de Loisy told me. “In Belgium, cleaning out ditches is compulsory. If we want to do it, we have to apply for a certificate, and the bureaucratic process takes several months. We’re not allowed to keep forest roads clear for our tractors. It’s all just designed to punish us. One thing that makes my members really angry is the OFB [French Biodiversity Office]. They send inspectors round and they carry guns. We’re not bandits!”

Ecologists see the OFB as an emergency police force, necessary to protect what’s left of Europe’s biodiversity. The new breed of small farmers, educated and idealistic younger people, agree. But the older generation, still real peasants, don’t engage in any of this. Our next-door neighbor, Marie-Françoise, at 75 years old, keeps chickens and rabbits and milks her cow by hand every day to make cream cheese for the village. Her life is not so different from that of her ancestors 500 years ago. When she dies, her little farm will probably be absorbed into the same global food industry that is paying for the fancy tractors blocking traffic and burning tires on the nearest highway.

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