PARIS – More than 1,000 tractors -- and a few cows -- descended on Paris on Thursday in a boisterous protest by farmers who blocked highways to express their anger over falling prices for their goods and high taxes.
They're facing increasingly slim margins they blame on cheap imports and high payroll charges, which they say make them unable to compete against producers in Germany and Eastern Europe. The farmers are seeking tax breaks from the French government and EU action.
Andie Le Mellionnec, 59, has run a dairy farm in western France for 40 years. Sporting a red hat, traditional to his home region of Brittany, and a Breton flag as a cape, he said his problem "is not whether France is a competitor or not. My problem is simply to live -- meaning to feed my family, my kids."
Tractors spray-painted with "Anger" or "Enough Bureaucracy" trundled Thursday morning along major arteries to the French capital and headed toward the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris. Some farmers headed to Parliament later in the day.
Protest organizer FNSEA, France's largest farming union, said 1,733 tractors from around the country contributed to the show of force.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is pushing for reforms in the farming sector, said he would meet with the FNSEA chief Thursday.
The evening before heading to Paris, grain farmer Pierre Bot said at his farm in Vauhallan, just south of the city, that he feels increasingly squeezed by larger factory farms. "It's not popular to annoy all the people on their way to work," Bot acknowledged. "Nevertheless, it's one of the only ways to make ourselves heard."
Agriculture "is part of the French identity," he said outside his small fruits and vegetables store, which Bot runs alongside his grain cultivation business.
French farmers have been particularly vocal this summer, blocking roads on the German border and major tourist destinations such as the Mont Saint-Michel peninsula. Their demonstrations are part of a larger debate over how to keep European farming globally competitive. A pan-European protest is expected Monday in Brussels during a meeting of EU agriculture ministers.
Thursday's commotion clogged traffic and caused headaches for some, but it brought a smile to the face of one Parisian bystander. Echoing widespread support for farmers in this country so proud of its land and world-famous food, she said, "Vive la France."