‘Farmer crisis is a pig for new French PM and a godsend for Le Pen’

It is tough at the top of the greasy pole of politics, observes commentator Simon Heffer

French farmers outside Paris in January; Prime Minister Attal has been dubbed ‘the Baby Macron’

It is possible President Macron thought that by installing a new, young, charismatic prime minister to replace an old, grey, rather monochrome one that his administration’s troubles would start to recede.

If so, life must have become even more disappointing for him than it already was.

Tough start for ‘Baby Macron’

Since Gabriel Attal succeeded Elisabeth Borne he has had to cope with a major uprising by French farmers, an insurgency that fits nicely into the hole left by the gilets jaunes.

He has had to endure his country being castigated by the European Union high command for falling short of its carbon emission targets.

He has had to witness a serious falling-out with Germany, considered by many French people to be their most indispensable partner, over Mr Macron’s highly activist policy towards Ukraine.

And if all that were not bad enough, a railway strike coincided with the half-term holidays, just as many people hoped to head to the ski slopes; the polls showed the Rassemblement National ahead in the run-up to the European elections; and Le Figaro reported ‘tensions’ between the President and the Prime Minister (who is termed ‘the Baby Macron’).

If Mr Attal did not know it already, life at the top of the greasy pole can be un vrai cochon.

Read more: ‘Why France’s ‘boy wonder’ PM may still end up as Macron’s scapegoat’

Surprisingly, farmers did not rush out to buy electric tractors

The list of grievances of France’s crucial farming community (including its winemakers) were Mr Attal’s first major crisis.

Although the industry is crucial in feeding the French people and exporting its renowned cheeses, wines and other products, an estimated 20% of French farms – around 101,000 – are claimed to have gone out of business between 2010 and 2020.

As part of France’s apparently unsuccessful (according to the EU) drive to combat climate change, the administration cut tax breaks on diesel for farmers, presumably imagining they would all run out and splash money on electric tractors.

They had no intention of doing any such thing. Instead, they took out their tractors and blockaded motorways, starting in the south-west.

Read more: French farmer protests restart: what is happening where?

Attal had to make promises - we’ll see how they turn out

Mr Attal sped off to talk to them. He had little choice: the protests had moved to the outskirts of Paris, and chaos had ensued. Some 250 miles of autoroute from Lyon heading south were blocked as well.

They also jammed town and city centres with drive-pasts and protests outside state buildings and, even after Mr Attal’s plea, turned up at the famous Château de Chambord for a mass tractor rally, and started blockading banks.

It was a reminder to Mr Attal about something the French do exceptionally well: taking to the streets.

“You wanted to send a message!” he told his audience in Tarn. “I’ve been listening.”

He promised to stop the rise in diesel prices and, for good measure, announced a fund to help with an outbreak of diseases among livestock.

He claimed – and we shall have to see how this turns out – that the government would place agriculture “above all else”: until, one presumes, some other form of protest erupts to trump it.

Mr Attal was not entirely successful.

Read more: Key points of new French prime minister’s traditional policy address

Farmers take aim at EU-negotiated free trade agreements

Jérôme Bayle, the farmer who began the blockade, said the concession was all that he had wanted, and he would be withdrawing from the fight; but Arnaud Rousseau, head of the main farming union the FNSEA, said most of members wanted more from the government.

In truth, the government’s panic-led intervention had quickly reached a pitch that few other European countries would have found acceptable.

Marc Fesneau, the agriculture minister, lectured food processors and supermarkets on the importance of obeying the laws on prices for agricultural products, ordering these bodies to be “economically responsible and patriotic” when it came to the nation’s farmers.

Read more: Fruit and veg prices in France: are imports always cheaper?

This, too, was not enough: farmers are demanding minimum prices, an easing of environmental restrictions, such as on pesticide use (imposed at a stricter level in France than many other EU countries) and are also taking aim at EU-negotiated free trade agreements.

Mr Attal claimed to be against a specific deal with the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which threatened to keep export prices low and suck in more cheap foreign foodstuffs, their prices lower because they are unburdened by the costs of EU regulations, especially on standards. For example, more than one in two chickens eaten in France is imported.

Farming is also becoming an old man’s game: François Purseigle, an agronomy professor at the Toulouse Institute of Technology, says 200,000 farmers will reach retirement age by 2026 and there simply are not enough younger people who want to take over from them.

Strict EU rules are godsend for Rassemblement National

Mr Attal finds himself in the same position as British prime ministers in the pre-Brexit era: there is nothing he can do about environmental standards, or agricultural ones, imposed upon France by the EU.

It was precisely such policies, and their detrimental effect on so many businesses in Britain, that helped push the Brexit vote over the line.

Mr Attal – and indeed Mr Macron – can moan about EU policies and directives, but it is a bit like sailors complaining of the sea: short of leaving, there is nothing they can do about it.

All this is a godsend for the RN, whose leaders have been reaching out to the protesting farmers and promising to take on Brussels if a large number of their candidates are returned in the imminent elections.

As things, and the polls, stand, the RN are set to do exceptionally well, which can only destabilise relations with Brussels further, and the Macron/Attal administration with it as it works out which side to take.

So no wonder this inability on the part of Mr Attal to work miracles is apparently upsetting the President.

He is highly unlikely to sack him, however, not least because there is no one who could do much better.

Getting the trains running again, and even calming down the Germans about Ukraine, appear far easier tasks.

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