The Hamilton Spectator

French Farmers Are Angry

In Europe, environmen­tal rules and rising costs threaten a way of life.


“We are suffocated by norms to the point we can’t go on.”

JEAN-MICHEL SIBELLE, who owns a chicken farm in Curtafond, France

CURTAFOND, France — Gazing out from his 105-hectare farm to the Jura mountains in the distance, Jean-Michel Sibelle expounded on the intricate secrets of soil, climate and breeding that have made his chickens — blue feet, white feathers, red combs in the colors of France — the royalty of poultry.

The “poulet de Bresse” was recognized in 1957 with a designatio­n of origin, similar to that accorded a great Bordeaux wine. Moving from a diet of meadow bugs and worms to a mash of corn flour and milk in its final sedentary weeks, the chicken acquires a unique muscular succulence. “The mash adds a little fat and softens the muscles formed in the fields to make the flesh moist and tender,” Mr. Sibelle said.

Mr. Sibelle, 59, seemed passionate about his chickens. But he is done. Squeezed by European Union and national environmen­tal regulation­s, facing rising costs and unregulate­d competitio­n, he sees no further point in laboring 70 hours a week.

He and his wife, Maria, are about to sell a farm that has been in the family for over a century. None of their three children want to take over; they have joined an exodus that has seen the share of the French population engaged in agricultur­e fall steadily over the past century to about 2 percent.

“We are suffocated by norms to the point we can’t go on,” Mr. Sibelle said.

Down on the European farm, revolt has stirred. The discontent, leading farmers to quit and demonstrat­e, threatens to do more than change how Europe produces its food. Angry farmers are blunting climate goals. They are reshaping politics ahead of elections for the European Parliament in June. They are shaking European unity against Russia as the war in Ukraine increases their costs.

“It’s the end of the world versus the end of the month,” Arnaud Rousseau, the head of the FNSEA, France’s largest farmers’ union, said. “There’s no point talking about farm practices that help save the environmen­t, if farmers cannot make a living.”

The turmoil has emboldened a far right that thrives on grievances and has rattled a European establishm­ent forced to make concession­s. In recent weeks, farmers have blocked highways and descended on the streets of European capitals in an outburst against what they call “existentia­l challenges.”

These challenges include E.U. requiremen­ts to cut the use of pesticides and fertilizer­s, now partly dropped in light of the protests. Europe’s decision to open its doors to cheaper Ukrainian grain and poultry in a show of solidarity added to

Close to 18 percent of French farmers are living below the poverty line. Feeding piglets at a farm in Lescheroux.

competitiv­e problems in a bloc where labor costs already varied widely. And the E.U. has in many cases reduced subsidies to farmers, especially if they do not shift to more environmen­tally friendly methods. (The E.U. has imposed restrictio­ns on some imports from Ukraine, including chicken.)

German farmers have attacked Green Party events. Last month, they spread a manure slick on a highway near Berlin that caused several cars to crash, seriously injuring five people. Spanish farmers have destroyed Moroccan produce grown with cheaper labor. Polish farmers are enraged by what they see as unfair competitio­n from Ukraine.

French farmers, who vented against President Emmanuel Macron during his recent visit to the Paris Agricultur­al Fair, say they can scarcely dig a ditch, trim a hedge, or birth a calf without facing a maze of regulatory requiremen­ts.

Fabrice Monnery, 50, who owns a 175-hectare cereal farm, said the cost for his electrifie­d irrigation more than doubled in 2023, and his fertilizer costs tripled, as the war in Ukraine increased energy prices. “At the start of the war, in 2022, our economy minister said we were going to destroy Russia economical­ly,” he said. “Well, it’s Russia’s war in Ukraine that’s destroying us.”

The soul of France is its “terroir,” the soil whose unique characteri­stics are learned over centuries by those cultivatin­g it, yet those people feel abandoned. The average age of farmers is over 50, and many cannot find a successor. Urban developmen­t and industrial zones encroach on highly mechanized farms abutting deserted villages where small stores have been crushed by hypermarke­ts that offer cheaper imported meat and produce.

Vincent Chatellier, an economist at the French National Institute for Agricultur­e, Food and the Environmen­t, said that close to 18 percent of French farmers live below the poverty line, and 25 percent are struggling. Ascendant far-right parties across the continent have seized on farmers’ anger two months before European Parliament elections.

For France’s anti-immigrant National Rally party, the E.U.’s “Green Deal” and “Farm to Fork Strategy,” which aim to halve pesticide use and cut fertilizer use by 20 percent by 2030 as part of a plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, are an attack on the French economy. In February, under pressure from farmer protests, the E.U. scrapped an anti-pesticide bill.

A recent poll by the newspaper Le Monde gave the National Rally 31 percent of France’s European election vote, well ahead of Mr. Macron’s Renaissanc­e party with 18 percent. Farmers may not contribute many votes directly but they are popular, even venerated, figures in France.

Cyrielle Chatelain, a French lawmaker who represents the mountainou­s Isère region and leads a group of environmen­talist parties in Parliament, said farmers were mostly angered by the way the rules are applied. The Green Deal stipulates, for example, that hedges, home to nesting birds, cannot be cut between March 15 and the end of August. But in Isère, she said, no bird would nest in a hedge on March 15 because the hedge is still frozen.

Besides deferring some environmen­tal rules, France has canceled a tax increase on diesel for farm vehicles. It has turned against free trade, moving to block an agreement with Mercosur, a South American bloc accused by farmers of unfair competitio­n. The question is how much of a toll such concession­s will take on the environmen­t.

Méryl Cruz Mermy and her husband, Benoît Merlo, have moved in the opposite direction from most young people. Over the past five years, they built a 280-hectare organic farm in eastern France where they grow wheat, rye, lentils, flax, sunflowers and other crops, as well as raise cattle. They went into debt as they bought and rented land.

Mr. Merlo, 35, sees a “crisis of civilizati­on” in the countrysid­e, where automation means fewer workers, the work is too arduous to attract most young people, and credit for investment is hard to obtain. He joined one protest out of extreme frustratio­n.

They are committed environmen­talists, but a crisis in the organic food sector has added to their difficulti­es. Hard-pressed consumers now balk at the higher prices. Several big supermarke­ts have dropped organic food.

“We have two children aged 3 and 7, so we have to be optimistic,” Ms. Cruz Mermy, 36, said, adding, “You look at the future — climate change, war, limited energy — and it feels ominous, but we go step by step.”

Over a century, that is what the family of Mr. and Mrs. Sibelle did.

On their farm, Mr. Sibelle has a “prize room,” a shed filled with silver cups and trophies, Sèvres porcelain sent by presidents, and other tributes to the greatness of his blue-whiteand-red Bresse chickens, symbols of a certain France that endures, but only just.

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 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S BY IVOR PRICKETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Méryl Cruz Mermy, 36, and her husband, Benoît Merlo, 35, have built up a 280-hectare organic farm in eastern France over five years, going into debt as they have bought and rented land. The future “feels ominous,” Ms. Cruz Mermy said.
PHOTOGRAPH­S BY IVOR PRICKETT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Méryl Cruz Mermy, 36, and her husband, Benoît Merlo, 35, have built up a 280-hectare organic farm in eastern France over five years, going into debt as they have bought and rented land. The future “feels ominous,” Ms. Cruz Mermy said.
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