Disgruntled French farmers converged on Paris Thursday to protest the government's perceived inaction in the face of the agricultural crisis many farmers say is pushing them out of business.
More than 1,000 tractors — 1,700 according to those who organized the protest — rolled into town early in the morning in an attempt to clog up the French capital's streets.
The convoy of trucks and tractors entered the capital via the Paris "Périphérique" ring road and was met by a small crowd of supporters who applauded the farmers. Fatigue appeared to be setting in for several farmers who had been on the road for days, sleeping in the back of livestock trucks.
Despite earlier warnings of severe disruptions to road traffic, the rally merely slowed down some cars.
At about noon, the tractors headed for Place de la Nation square and remained there for several hours. Some of the farmers laid down on the lawn to rest while others took to a podium to vent their frustrations.
"Yesterday, I told my son, 'Tomorrow, daddy is going to Paris so that next year, you can go on holiday,'" one emotional farmer told the crowd.
According to Julien, a 34-year-old sheep and cattle farmer who took over his family's farm five years ago, the French government is being "over-zealous" with its environmental protection standards, which many farmers say render them unable to compete with their European neighbors.
"Europe sets reasonable standards, but France adds on another layer just to be greener than green," Julien told VICE News.
Wearing a red shirt emblazoned with his union's logo, Julien had traveled all the way from the northeastern region of Haute-Marne to take part in the protest, which he described as "the culmination" of a summer of discontent.
"We're here to try and find a solution to the distorsion of competition with our European friends," he said.
This summer, angry French farmers let pigs loose in supermarkets and dumped truckloads of manure outside government buildings in protest over plummeting food prices, which they blame on cheap European produce and pressure from major retailers and processors.
A few feet away, 25-year-old Florian turned off his tractor — or rather, his father's tractor. Florian, who hopes to one day take over his father's cereal farm, explained that he was here to defend his future. He and a group of friends milled around for a while, setting off firecrackers, before walking off to look for a bakery.
Later in the afternoon, French prime minister Manuel Valls unveiled a slew of new measures to protect the agriculture sector, including a plan to postpone all farmers' debt repayments by a year. Valls also announced tax cuts and relaxed environmental standards.
The 3 billion euro package is the amount put forth by Xavier Beulin, leader of the FNSEA farmers' union, during an interview with French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. Addressing the crowd of farmers at 3pm, Beulin said, "We did it. Well done!"
But France's farmers appeared to have been left cold by the government's investment package; Beulin's victory cry was met with booing from the crowd.
"Many farmers disappointed following the announcement of FNSEA president."
Back in July, France's agriculture minister, Stéphane Le Foll, unveiled an emergency aid package of 600 million euros to help French farmers stay afloat. But the pledged government aid had done little to reassure farmers, who continued to stage protests across the country.
"They insist on French quality at European prices," said Alain, who has worked as a farmer in the Alsace region for the past 35 years. Alain raises dairy cows, grows cereal, and works as an agricultural contractor. "What we want is a fighting chance."
In addition to complaints of unfair competition, farmers also say the sector has been weakened by the Russian sanctions introduced in 2014 by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In response to the European sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the Ukraine conflict, Putin initiated an embargo on food imports from the EU. "Russia used to be a huge 'vacuum' for French pork," said Alain.
By the end of the afternoon, the square started to empty. Several farmers, including 42-year-old Cédric, vowed to continue the fight. "If we have to, we'll come back," he told VICE News. "But first, we're going to Brussels."
Cédric and many others planned to take their protest to the EU headquarters on September 7, when agriculture ministers from the 28 member states gather to discuss solutions for the ailing dairy sector.