Protests and Love – France’s Farmer Organisations, Demonstrations and Social Alliances

“Angry vegetable grower looking for public support to put butter on her spinach” Photo: Hannes Lorenzen

Jean-Marc Desfilhes and Hannes Lorenzen present a history of French farmers’ associations and social alliances in light of the recent demonstrations and associated political reactions. They propose: Now is the time to mobilise love and protest to stop the current agricultural policy rollback. 

This article is translated from the German version appearing in the Bauernstimme

By Jean-Marc Desfilhes and Hannes Lorenzen

The French love their farmers. Surveys conducted during the major demonstrations at the beginning of the year showed great understanding among the French population for the mobilisation throughout the country. But the government fears them. Protest and love can make a difference together. The newly elected French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal was therefore immediately on the scene in February and promised pretty much everything: more money, less bureaucracy and environmental regulations, if necessary France going it alone in agricultural policy, no Mercosur trade agreement, and so on. The police were very lenient for a long time. It was only when the blockade of Paris threatened that the love was over. It is worth taking a look at the history of French farmers’ organisations and agricultural associations.

Historical perspective

France’s farmers’ organisation, the FNSEA (Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles), has a central position. The Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, founded the Corporation Paysanne, which was supposed to represent the interests of the entire agricultural sector. The FNSEA emerged from this in 1946.

With the end of the Second World War, a profound change in the social position of farmers began with the introduction of social security, the end of sharecropping and the strengthening of farmers’ rights vis-à-vis the owners. The FNSEA organised this modernisation by centrally controlling the granting of credit, the cooperatives and the redistribution of land.

In the mid-1960s, the association’s dominant position began to crack. The large number of small farms rebelled, resisting the pricing policy, increasing debt and the FNSEA’s favouritism towards growing farms. Some organised themselves into the Confédération Nationale des Syndicats de Travailleurs Paysans (CNSTP). Others founded the FNSP (National Federation of Farmers’ Unions). Both later gave rise to today’s Confédération Paysanne, which remained the only opposition to the FNSEA until 1992 and continues to represent the interests of small and peasant farmers in France today.

The CAP reform of 1992 led to a lively debate in France about the distribution of subsidies from Brussels and to fierce protests, including against the FNSEA. The FNSEA demanded per-hectare premiums in order to maintain the status quo of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and to promote growing farms.

Demonstrations against this took place in the disadvantaged south-west of France in particular. The Confédération Paysanne criticised productivism, structural overproduction and the drastic loss of income for the vast majority of farms. It was and is politically independent and is more closely aligned with the left-wing political spectrum and environmentalists.

However, there is also peasant protest on the right of the political spectrum. The Coordination Rurale, for example, is openly claimed as a political organisation by Marine Le Pen’s far-right party. The FNSEA does not need to commit itself politically; it has had and still has a permanent seat in literally every government in its Ministry of Agriculture.

The chambers of agriculture

Elections to represent the agricultural profession take place every six years in France. They are the yardstick for the influence of the three largest farmers’ unions on national agricultural policy. The Confédération Paysanne achieved its greatest influence with José Bové in 2001 (28%) against the backdrop of the liberalisation of agricultural markets and the mobilisation against the WTO, GMOs and patents.

Since then, it has lost supporters, while the right-wing Coordination Rurale has made gains. The FNSEA could fall below the symbolic 50 per cent mark for the first time in 2025. However, it can be assumed that the FNSEA will continue to have a significant influence on the next, possibly early, reform of the CAP.

The recent farmers’ demonstrations in France followed those in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Germany. In France, too, they were triggered by new legal requirements and expiring tax benefits. However, the heated mood was based on the generally precarious income and sentiment situation, especially on farms with animal production. Only half of all farms have successors, and France has lost 20% of its farms in the last ten years. The rural infrastructure is shrinking, dramatically in some regions, and newcomers hardly stand a chance due to high land prices and operating costs

Panic in Brussels

From this point of view, the current panicked reactions of the government and the EU Commission are both low-effort and completely misguided. Reducing bureaucracy and controls does not help most farms economically, and retained tax benefits only in the short term. The current evisceration of the Green Deal is merely a means of distracting attention from the real problems of unfair global agricultural trade and the rising profit margins in the industries upstream and downstream of agriculture.

Under the leadership of FNSEA President Christine Lambert, COPA, the European federation of leading agricultural associations, has succeeded since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in bringing 4 million hectares of European fallow land (300,000 hectares of which are in France) back under the plough, under the slogans of food sovereignty and feeding the world. Copa has prevented the banning of neonicotinoids and pushed through the extension of the authorisation of glyphosate. Now it is a question of authorising new GMOs. The French government is taking this roadmap at face value. A historic irresponsibility in the face of climate chaos and public health.

Social alliances

But there are also counter-movements. With the founding of the Collectif Nourrir alliance, the French action platform Pour une autre PAC has made a new attempt to bring together the various interests from the environmental, climate and social movements in a common food strategy. With a declining agricultural and rural population, the alliance is endeavouring to draw more influence on political decision-makers from the commitment of the urban population.

The public relations and educational work of Collectiv Nourir focuses on qualifying public support for the CAP with a view to the major challenges of the environment, climate, biodiversity and social justice. Collaboration with national alliances in Europe such as the German Platform of Associations on the Common Agricultural Policy is being sought, but in practice this is still difficult due to language barriers and a lack of opportunities for cooperation.

Without social alliances that bring together a broader understanding of and commitment to the urgent changes in agriculture, the environment and food – at both national and European level – the current agricultural policy rollback will be unstoppable for many years to come. So now is the time to mobilise love and protest effectively again.

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About Hannes Lorenzen 44 Articles

Hannes Lorenzen was senior adviser to the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg from 1985 to 2019. Before starting his career in the European institutions, he carried out research, coordination and evaluation work on rural development projects with the Technical Service of the German Government. On the international level Hannes Lorenzen is co-founder of Genetic Resources Action International (www.grain.org) and co-president of the European Rural Development Network Forum Synergies (www.forum-synergies.eu). He is also co-founder of PREPARE, the "Partnership for Rural Europe" network for Central and Eastern European Member States (www.preparenetwork.org), serving as chairman and president until 2016. He co-founded ARC2020 and is its president since 2016. Closer to home, Hannes chairs a local rural development organization on his home island of Pellworm in North Friesland, Germany, which works o organic farming, renewable energy production, soft tourism and nature protection projects in a local dimension.

Hannes Lorenzen a été conseiller auprès de la Commission de l’Agriculture et du Développement Rural du Parlement Européen à Bruxelles et à Strasbourg de 1985 à 2019. Avant d’entamer sa carrière au sein des institutions européennes, il a effectué des travaux de recherche, de coordination et d’évaluation de projets de développement rural au sein du service coopération du gouvernement allemand. Au niveau international, Hannes LORENZEN est co-fondateur de Forum Synergies, réseau européen de développement rural (www.forum-synergies.eu). Il a cofondé ARC2020 et en est le président depuis 2016. Hannes préside aussi une organisation locale de développement rural sur son île natale de PELLWORM, en Allemagne. Cette organisation travaille sur des projets d’agriculture biologique, de production d’énergie renouvelable, de tourisme doux et de protection de la nature à l’échelle locale. Sur l’île il est aussi engagé avec des jeunes agriculteurs dans le développement et la reproduction des semences paysannes en bio et la biodiversité en agriculture. Hannes a toujours vu l’agriCulture française au cœur de l’intégration européenne. L’amour et le respect des français pour leurs paysans et l’appréciation de la “bonne bouffe” ont aussi été une flammèche pour se lancer dans cette nouvelle aventure du projet “La résilience de nos compagnes” de ARC2020. Même si un petit virus empêche Hannes de voyager pour l’instant, il est déjà en route pour rencontrer plein de monde qui bouge pour une transition juste et attirante…