France’s Tractor Protesters Have Reason to Be Angry

William Bouchardon
David Broder

As protesting farmers drive their tractors toward Paris, many in the media speak of a rural revolt. But not all farmers are on the same side, as ordinary producers complain of being crushed by unequal subsidies and factory farms who skirt environmental rules.

A demonstrator rides a tractor with a banner reading "France, do you still want us?" during a farmers’ protest in Lyon, on February 21, 2023. (Jeff Pachoud / AFP via Getty Images)

“We’re on our knees,” “Farmers in revolt,” “Everything’s upside-down,” “We want to feed people, not croak.” Last fall, these kinds of banners kept appearing across rural France, especially along the country’s main roads. But in recent days, farmers’ actions have intensified, with a call to blockade Paris starting on Friday.

The roots of farmers’ anger run deep: their inability to make ends meet, exasperation with bureaucracy, rejection of free-trade agreements, and sometimes opposition to environmental standards deemed overly restrictive. But while official agroindustry associations FNSEA (National Federation of Agricultural Holders’ Unions) and Jeunes Agriculteurs are trying to impose their direction on the movement, it seems to be escaping their grip. The protests are an opportunity to finally point out the hypocrisy of these associations, which purport to defend farmers by locking them into a failing model.

From Grievance to Revolt

Since last fall, farmers have rolled out their now-usual array of actions in small towns and villages around France: tractor processions, dumping manure in front of official buildings, “free shopping cart” actions, or throwing eggs at supermarkets accused of taking excessive profits. Yet national media gave these protests little coverage. While their interest was surely otherwise occupied, the fact that Paris was not affected by any demonstrations, coupled with a certain contempt for “yokels,” no doubt partly explains this lack of attention.

Yet more intense and spectacular actions, with blockades of roads and motorways spreading from the southwest throughout France, have helped draw the protests into view. These modes of action, reminiscent of those of the Yellow Vests, are increasingly worrying authorities. With some prominent protesters, such as (nonunionized) cattle farmer Jérôme Bayle, threatening to boycott the Paris International Agricultural Show, and a blockade of Paris now announced, tensions have risen a notch. Government fears that the large-scale blockades seen elsewhere in Europe could be imitated in France are materializing. It is trying to dampen the fire by sending ministers and local officials to meet farmers, so far without success.

Emmanuel Macron’s government’s eagerness to negotiate stands in contrast with its usual approach to social movements, which consists of demonizing and repressing them. This is surprising, given that farmers’ actions sometimes take a violent turn, as when projectiles were thrown at police officers in Saint-Brieuc on December 6, or when the Comité d’Action Viticole claimed responsibility for the explosion of an empty DREAL (Regional Environment, Planning and Housing Authority) building in Carcassonne on January 19. There has been widespread dumping of manure and agricultural waste on prefectures, the local offices of the interior ministry.

Normally, faced with protests, media are quick to denounce the slightest garbage can fire or barricade erected with city scooters. Yet this time they are far more conciliatory. The double fatality in Ariège, where a farmer and her daughter were hit by a car at a roadblock, could also have served as an argument for the government to call for blockades to be lifted. Instead, interior minister Gérald Darmanin is calling for “great moderation” from law enforcement, who should only be sent in “as a last resort.”

Not Repressed (For Now)

While this treatment may come as a surprise, it can be understood in the light of several factors: farmers’ public image, the particular characteristics of this social group, and the symbiosis between the FNSEA and the government.

Firstly, farmers — the embodiment of a hardworking rural France, of obvious use to society — enjoy considerable public sympathy. A poll from January 23 puts support for this movement at 82 percent, 10 points higher than the Yellow Vests at the start of their mobilization. Similarly, while the number of farmers has fallen sharply in recent decades (today there are around 400,000), their vote remains highly coveted across the political spectrum, if only to avoid appearing as urbanites disconnected from the rest of the country.

Secondly, farmers are a difficult group to repress. When demonstrations take place in the countryside, gendarmes (armed police) and farmers often know each other, which makes confrontation less likely. Fighting would also be complicated: the imposing size of tractors and the fact that their cabs are difficult to reach protect farmers from potential repression. Finally, many farmers are also hunters, and therefore armed.

Finally, the government is on very good terms with the two big farmers’ unions. The FNSEA and the Jeunes Agriculteurs movement together won 55 percent of votes in the 2019 elections for the country’s Chambers of Agriculture, representing producers. Their intensive-production, export-oriented vision is fully in line with that of Macron’s government, which wants agriculture to become increasingly mechanized, robotized, and digitalized to boost productivity. The FNSEA president’s support for Macron during the first pension reform in 2019 and the creation of the Demeter cell — a gendarme intelligence unit dedicated to tracking down environmental activists opposed to agribusiness — bear witness to this. So, when the FNSEA and Jeunes Agriculteurs call for farmers to mobilize, it’s only to better strengthen their negotiating position with the government.

The Roots of Anger

Launching their mobilization last fall, the two unions especially sought government concessions on a planned Agricultural Orientation Law, and from the European Union (EU) on the Green Deal and the Nature Restoration Act. In the background, the FNSEA and Jeunes Agriculteurs hope to strengthen their own power over the French farming community. Yet, if this may have worked last fall, the current movement seems to be escaping their control.

All farmers say the same thing: it is difficult to live off their work, even if they work tirelessly every day. While food prices have soared these past two years, this windfall has not trickled down to them and remains captured by industrialists, supermarkets, and traders speculating on agricultural prices: between late 2021 and the second quarter of 2023, the food industry’s gross margin rose from 28 to 48 percent. Meanwhile, many farmers are selling their produce at a loss. This is particularly true of milk, where the industry, dominated by a few big players, refuses to disclose its margins. The racket is also organized upstream, with a few large suppliers of plant protection products, fertilizers, seeds, and agricultural equipment. They have raised their prices sharply recently because of external factors like war in Ukraine, but also out of sheer moneygrubbing.

Farmers thus rely on a drip feed of subsidies: investment aids, income support from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) based on the number of hectares farmed or the size of the herd, aid for going organic, for maintaining hedgerows . . . There’s something for just about everything. But you have to fill out a mountain of forms to benefit — and hope that the administration processes them in time. But years of austerity and increasingly complex procedures have rendered the bureaucracy incapable of performing its duties. The biggest farmers are often the only ones to benefit from subsidies. It’s easy to see why administrative buildings are targeted.

At a time when the economic equation is already untenable for small farmers, a new wave of free trade is sweeping over them. After competition from Spain for fruit and vegetables, and from German and Polish pork producers, they now face competition from New Zealand, with which the EU has just signed a free-trade agreement. Amid an ecological emergency, importing sheep meat and milk from the other side of the planet was a curious priority.

The EU is also finalizing steps to remove customs barriers with South American common market Mercosur. Faced with the factory farms of Brazil and Argentina, which grow soybeans and beef over vast expanses, it’s clear that all but the biggest French players cannot compete. The fact that these countries use antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, and all kinds of products banned in Europe is vaguely acknowledged by the European Commission, which points to “mirror clauses” in the agreement, but without any specifics. Finally, the EU is steadily speeding up the integration of Ukraine, whose produce has invaded Central European markets, much to the detriment of Polish and Hungarian farmers.


Yet while these reasons for anger are common among farmers, they aren’t the core of the FNSEA and Jeunes Agriculteurs’ demands. Instead, the two unions are mainly directing their opposition against measures aimed at transitioning the sector to greener production methods. In particular, they denounced a tax hike on pesticides and a levy on water used for irrigation. Aimed at financing the government’s Water Plan and reducing pesticide spraying in order to preserve this increasingly scarce resource, these two taxes were abandoned in December. The gradual end of the tax exemption on red diesel, the fuel used by farm machinery, also faces criticism, although the FNSEA is in some difficulty on this front: in a deal with the government this summer, it accepted this increase in exchange for a reform of the taxation of agricultural capital gains, to the benefit of higher-income farmers.

In addition to taxes, the FNSEA and JA especially oppose new EU environmental standards, such as the European “farm to fork” strategy and the “Green Deal.” The former aims to ensure that 25 percent of farmland is organic by 2030, while the latter plan has already been largely gutted. For FNSEA chief Arnaud Rousseau this — albeit timid — transition to agroecology means “degrowthing agriculture,“ leaving it unable to meet France’s food needs. Stirring up fears of shortages, the FNSEA hopes to derail limited attempts to convert the sector to more sustainable approaches. In its view, the solution to the productivity problems posed by soil depletion, climate change, rising epidemics, and the biodiversity crisis lies solely in technical progress, whether in the form of drones, digitization, mega-farming, robotization, or GMOs.

The biggest farmers’ union’s blatant disregard for the environment is not, however, representative of all farmers’ outlooks. On the front line of global warming’s effects, the first victims of pesticides, and witnesses of land depletion and water scarcity, many support a change of model. But while the transition to organic production takes years and the loans to be repaid are often considerable, no transition is possible without substantial government help. Yet aid for the transition to — and maintenance of — organic farming is notoriously inadequate, and is rarely paid out on time. Moreover, the organic market actually shrank by 4.6 percent by 2022, a trend that continued in 2023. Excessively expensive — due in part to supermarket mark-ups — these products are increasingly shunned by inflation-hit consumers.

Beyond the organic sector, calls for greater agroecology are not matched by sufficient resources. A case in point is the mobilization in Brittany last fall (led by the Farmers’ Confederation and the Innovation Centers for the Valorization of Farming and Rural areas) calling for more funding dedicated to agroecological and climatic measures, which encourage livestock farmers to dedicate more of their farms to grassland. Many farmers would like to adopt practices that are more respectful of the environment and of animal welfare, but simply don’t have the means to do so.

Instead of combining the necessary ecological shift in agriculture with the measures needed to make it happen — protectionism and higher pay for farmers — the FNSEA, and to a lesser extent the Jeunes Agriculteurs, reject this transition outright. This should come as no surprise: despite claiming to represent all farmers, the FNSEA only stands up for the wealthiest. The salaries of the union’s leaders, revealed in 2020 by Mediapart, express this disconnect with ordinary producers: the then–director general took €13,400 gross per month, more than the agriculture minister, while the former president, working only three days a week, received as much in one month as the average farmer does annually.

The profile of the current FNSEA president well illustrates the interests that it defends. A business school graduate, Arnaud Rousseau began his career in commodities trading, i.e. speculation. He then took over the family’s 700-hectare cereal farm, a perfect embodiment of intensive-production agriculture stuffed with European subsidies. Beyond his farm, Rousseau is also CEO of a methanization company, director of the Saipol group, France’s leading processor of seeds into oils, and chairman of Sofiprotéol, a company offering credit to farmers, and of a dozen other companies. Most importantly, he is CEO of Avril, a huge industrial concern. By 2022, this agrifood and agrofuels behemoth’s sales had reached some €9 billion.

Boss of an agro-industrial group that makes its money on the backs of farmers, promoter of farmer indebtedness, and former commodities trader, Rousseau has interests in almost every sector responsible for the death of French agriculture. No surprise, then, that the FNSEA is content to issue meager statements against free-trade agreements without calling for mobilization to defeat them, or that it ardently defends an EU Common Agricultural Policy that benefits only the biggest corporations. The same is true of the FNSEA’s defense of “mega-basin“ water reservoirs: presented as a solution to widespread drought, these basins benefit the biggest farmers, who refuse to change their methods and take water away from the smallest to produce foodstuffs often destined for export.

Where Next?

Usually, the FNSEA’s and Jeunes Agriculteurs’ selling out of their base prompts little real response. This time, however, it seems that their attempts to control the movement are failing. In Toulouse, a union representative inviting farmers to go home and let his union negotiate on their behalf was loudly booed. The action at a Lactalis milk factory in Haute-Saône — blockaded with manure and garbage — is of a kind that the FNSEA would probably never have supported. More generally, protesting farmers generally prefer not to parade their union membership — when they even have one — and are keen to avoid politicians co-opting them.

So, what political responses have their been? The government’s line is unclear and its record through seven years in power is hardly much to boast about. However, it is likely that the Macronists will end up concluding an agreement with the FNSEA on emergency aid and the abolition of environmental rules, in the hope of quelling anger. If legislative changes are needed, this shouldn’t pose it too many problems: the conservative Republicans, formally an opposition party and yet also the government’s unofficial allies, are fully aligned with the FNSEA’s demands.

Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is more critical of the FNSEA but takes up most of its substantive arguments. The only notable difference is the issue of free trade, which the far right strongly opposes. This brings Le Pen closer to the Coordination Rurale, an agricultural union that has long argued for “agricultural exceptionalism” in the context of globalization. While Le Pen and co. are obviously trying to co-opt the movement and directly target the EU in their criticisms — hoping to boost their score in June’s European elections — they have virtually nothing to propose in terms of price regulation, CAP reform, farm incomes or the environment.

The Left’s Response

As for the Left, it finds itself in much the same situation as the Farmers’ Confederation, which embodies this political camp among the farming unions. Although farmer protests echo many of the warnings issued by the Confederation over the years (denouncing free-trade treaties, the folly of market liberalization and the end of production quotas, the unfairness of subsidies, the impossibility of greening agriculture without financial support, the adaptation of standards to small farms’ real conditions, etc.), this does not necessarily lead to support for the union’s proposals. For the Left, the challenge today is to repair its image among farmers by pushing back against the discourse around “agriculture bashing” or the hectoring, city-based, vegan “bourgeois bohemian.”

Recent interventions by left-wing MPs offer hope of breaking with this image. François Ruffin, Mathilde Hignet (herself a former farm worker), and Christophe Bex from France Insoumise, as well as Green MP Marie Pochon (a daughter of winegrowers), have clearly laid blame on the farming world’s real adversaries: retailers, agrifood industrialists, factory farms abroad, and the FNSEA. Such legislators have offered no shortage of proposals, from setting price floors, to margin controls, protectionist measures, a review to simplify subsidies and support a more ecological model, and a review of tendering criteria so that public-sector canteens favor French produce. On November 30, France Insoumise proposed the introduction of a floor price for agricultural products, which was rebuffed in parliament by just six votes. In the longer term, the introduction of a social security system for food — a demand that is making inroads on the Left and of which there are increasing numbers of local experiments — could provide a new framework for truly demarketizing agriculture.

Admittedly, this may seem a long way off. The current movement will probably eventually subside, faced with the fatigue of people mobilized in midwinter, the need to keep farms running to repay loans, and the probable agreement between the FNSEA, the Jeunes Agriculteurs, and the government to calm the crowd. The fact that this movement remains limited to one sector does not augur well for its endurance. But it has already reopened crucial debates on our food supply, globalization, work, and the highly unequal distribution of value. In so doing, it has broken the neoliberal framework in which the FNSEA wants to confine all political discussion about agriculture. That itself is a victory.