In the past 12 months, the cost of running Jean-Marie Dirat’s lamb farm in southwest France has jumped by 35,000 euros (US$37,719), driven up by increasingly expensive fertilizers, fuel, electricity and pesticides.
Money is so tight this year that he cannot pay himself. To his surprise, he even calculated he would be eligible for the minimum welfare benefit, given to society’s poorest.
“My grandfather had 15 cows and 15 hectares. He raised his kids, his family, without any problem. Today, me and my wife, we have 70 hectares, 200 sheep, and we can’t even pay ourselves a salary,” Dirat told reporters at a roadblock made of hay bales that barred access to a nuclear plant.
Other farmers in the French southwest, where a nationwide movement started, complain about red tape and restrictions on water usage, as well as competition from Ukrainian imports let into the EU to help its economy during the war.
Farmers elsewhere in Europe are similarly disgruntled, with protests in Germany, Poland, Romania and Belgium coming after a new farmers’ party scored highly in Dutch elections.
Their blockades and pickets are exposing a clash between the EU’s drive to cut carbon dioxide emissions and its aim of becoming more self-sufficient in the production of food and other essentials following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Just five months before elections to the European Parliament, the revolt is fueling a narrative that the EU is riding roughshod over farmers, who are struggling to adapt to stringent environmental regulations amid an inflation shock.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s lieutenant, Jordan Bardella, blames “Macron’s Europe” for the farmers’ troubles. Le Pen herself says the EU needs to quit all free-trade deals and that her party would block any future agreements, such as with South American Mercosur countries, if it wins power.
Worryingly for French President Emmanuel Macron and other EU leaders, opinion polls show that farmers’ grievances resonate with the public. An Elabe poll showed that 87 percent of French people supported the farmers’ cause and 73 percent of them considered the EU to be a handicap for farmers, not an asset.
National governments are scrambling to address farmers’ concerns, with France and Germany both watering down proposals to end tax breaks on agricultural diesel. The European Commission also announced new measures on Wednesday.
However, the protests could amplify a rightward shift in the European Parliament and imperil the EU’s green agenda. Poll projections show that an “anti-climate policy action coalition” could be formed in the new legislature in June.
“The far right’s strategy is to Europeanize the conflict,” Teneo analyst Antonio Barroso said. “Farmers are a small group, but these parties think they can attract the whole rural vote by extension.”
Different political catalysts have spurred farmers from France to Romania into action.
In Germany, a week of protests against high fuel prices culminated last month in a rally of 10,000 farmers who gummed up central Berlin’s streets with their tractors and jeered at German Minister of Finance Christian Lindner.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party, running high in the polls on a lackluster economy, tried to capitalize, dropping its usual opposition to subsidies and saying farmers demands should be met.
In March last year, discontent with climate and agriculture policy helped the new BBB political party to win regional elections in the Netherlands, the world’s second-biggest agricultural exporter.
Its list for June’s EU elections are to be led by Sander Smit, a former EU parliament adviser who wants to be “a voice of and for the countryside,” campaigning for an easing of EU restrictions on agricultural land use.
“The EU must start working again for citizens, farmers, gardeners, fishermen, for communities, families and entrepreneurs,” Smit, 38, said.
French unions such as the powerful FNSEA have brought discipline to the farmers rallies, avoiding the violence seen during the “yellow vest” protests that rocked France in Macron’s first term and are already winning concessions from the government.
However, unions say they cannot control who farmers vote for.
In France, support from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy means farmers, although politically conservative, were historically more pro-European than the average voter.
In the French 2022 presidential election, Le Pen did less well among farmers than in the rest of the population, while pro-European Macron outperformed, an Ifop/FNSEA poll showed.
However, some farmers say they are tempted to vote for Le Pen’s National Rally party in June, in protest of the EU’s climate drive, which they say crushes production and leaves space for global competitors.
“Europe is putting us on a drip to let us die silently,” Pierre Poma, a 66-year-old retired farmer in Montauban in southwest France, told reporters.
He joined National Rally a few years ago and ran for a parliamentary seat in 2022, garnering 40 percent of the votes compared with the 15 percent Le Pen’s party won in the same constituency in 2017.
Poma, who used to grow peaches, pears and apples, says he had to sell his house because he could not turn a profit. He blames red tape and the EU’s farm-to-fork strategy, which he abhors.
After visiting farmers’ motorway blockades in the past few days, he is confident that like-minded parties would be a force to reckon with in Brussels after June.
“Our group is growing, in Germany, in Hungary, elsewhere. It’s the end of a world, the end of the policies of the past,” Poma said.
Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam,
Thomas Escritt in Berlin, Kate Abnett in Brussels and Anna Koper in Warsaw
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