If there's any culture that has truly mastered the art of the demonstration, it's the French. Over the past couple of years, French citizens have taken to the streets to protest the deportation of the high school-aged children of undocumented immigrants, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and police brutality, among other issues. And as with everything else they do, the French like to carry out their "manifs" in style. On Wednesday, about 36,000 disgruntled farmers fanned out across the country to call attention to their depressed wages, and they made quite a splash, dumping about 160,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables on Paris' Place de la Republique, using tractors to spray manure onto government buildings in Tours, Toulouse, and other cities. In Dijon, they burned an effigy of a French ecology minister.
The protest, organized by the National Federation of Agricultural Holders' Unions (FNSEA), comes at a time when straits are particularly dire for French farmers. In March, the EU issued the first of a series of economic sanctions against Russia as a response to the country's illegal annexation of Crimea; in August, the Russian government retaliated by banning European food imports for the next year. The effect on European food producers—which last year exported more than $13 billion worth of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and fish to Russia—was catastrophic, and hit France especially hard. Its share of the export market last year was worth more than $1 billion, and two percent of its fresh fruit and six percent of its fresh vegetables go to Russia. That's two hundred million pounds of apples, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, pears, and heads of cauliflower, the most common crops that France grows for the country.
"Markets need to be regulated," farmer Cyrille Milard told the French news website The Local. "The borders are open, that's Europe, and we import 80 percent of vegetables and 80 percent of meat. While this happens our farmers quit the profession every week and every day because they can't sell their produce. We produce high quality goods, but can't sell them."
That glut of produce, grounded within France's borders, has caused the price of such staple crops to plummet. The Russian embargo could not come at a worse time for French farmers, whose incomes already dropped by nearly 20 percent in 2013 mainly due to the rising costs of farming inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Participants in yesterday's demonstrations called for France to reduce its dependence on cheap imported food and instead put domestically grown food to use in the country's canteens and restaurants, hoisting banners that read "Manger Français"—eat French—and carrying out random "côntroles origines," in which participants checked early morning delivery trucks to determine the country of origin of the produce inside. Trucks making deliveries to the French Finance Ministry in Paris contained Moroccan tomatoes and Italian apples, a protester with the group Young Farmers said.
But whence all the shit? Earlier this year, the French government started enforcing a 1991 EU directive aimed at curbing nitrate pollution and limiting the spreading of organic manure, used as a crop fertilizer, to about 375 pounds per hectare. Farmers aren't happy about suddenly having a lot more crap on their hands, and they showed it yesterday by piling about 200,000 pounds of it into tractors, driving it into French cities and piling in front of—and spraying it onto—government buildings as they displayed banners with slogans such as "Manure, we can't spread it anymore, you can have it, help yourselves."
As the farmers' stance against environmental regulations demonstrates, yesterday's protests weren't a straightforward case of good French agriculturists versus evil big government. As some smaller farming groups in the country have pointed out, the FNSEA, which organized the events, mainly represents large-scale farms that do the environment more harm than good. Maintenance of France's heavily polluted water supply, a result of fertilizer- and pesticide-heavy agricultural practices, costs taxpayers around 1 billion euros per year.
Bastien Beaufort, a co-founder the anti-food waste group Disco Soup and a member of Slow Food International, explained that the motives behind yesterday's demonstrations defy easy categorization.
"The reasons for the protest are really complex," he told MUNCHIES in an email. "If we want to have a 'good, clean and fair food system'—as we defend it in Slow Food—we'll have to talk peacefully with everyone."