French farmers: Politicians must help us with drought and climate crisis

From cheese trivia to wine tastings and 'the most beautiful cow' competitions - and of course visits from politicians - the Salon de l'Agriculture is France's biggest and most important farm show. Genevieve Mansfield went along to find out more.

French farmers: Politicians must help us with drought and climate crisis
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) visits the International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture) in Paris, on February 25, 2023. (Photo by CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL / AFP)

The Salon is the highlight of the agricultural year with thousands of farmers descending on Paris to show off their wares to the 700,000 people who visit over the course of a week.

It’s also an important rite of passage for French politicians – President Emmanuel Macron visited on Saturday, and just a few days later, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, made an appearance as well. The Salon is used as a barometer of any would-be president’s ability to be “proche du peuple” (close to the people).

EXPLAINED: Why petting cows at the Paris farm show is crucial for French politicians

Macron spent several hours at the Salon on Saturday, but his efforts left many farmers unimpressed. 

Arnault Etienne, a farmer from the Morbihan Gulf in Brittany whose cows were entered in the competition, said: “Our dear President Emmanuel Macron attended on Saturday and he was completely inaccessible.

“Normally the president should walk through this area to see the cows – to take a moment to look at them and pet them, and to speak with us, but with this president it is not like that. There is definitely a difference between him and the others before him”. 

Wine producer and seller from Burgundy, Daniel, felt similarly. “For the politicians, it’s important to visit to see what’s going on in the world of agriculture. We suffer a lot. As for me, I did not get to speak with the politicians. I usually don’t see them – oftentimes, they don’t come out into the crowds, and they stay in their own space”. 

Meanwhile, others, like Sylvie Olivet and Christelle Delma who work for the IGP (Indication Geographique Protegée – a label issued by the European Union to protect certain foods and products from specific geographical areas) of Herault, home to eight IGP recongised wines, noted that the presence of local politicians is not to be forgotten. 

“Just this morning, we had the Préfet of Hérault come visit and give a speech. We’ve also had the president of the region”.

As for Arnault, he explained that when he first began attending the agriculture show, he cared more about the presence of the French president and other elected officials, but he went on to explain that he has become more apathetic to their presence over time.

“Yeah it’s important for them to come, but there’s a difference between what is said and what happens. Like they’ll say ‘eat French, buy French’ but then you go into the supermarket, and people buy what’s cheapest and that’s that.

“The president has to do more for farmers, he has to give us the means to continue existing, especially because desertification is expanding. The next big crisis could be a famine and we are the ones responsible for feeding the world. Last year we had a lot significant heatwaves, even in Brittany”. 

Daniel added: “If I could talk to the politicians, I would mostly say that we are in a difficult period when it comes to the drought. There is not enough support in that area.”

Climate change was at the top of many other farmers’ lists of concerns. This winter France beat previous winter drought records after experiencing 32 consecutive days without any significant rainfall, and water restrictions are already in place for some areas

Sylvie, the head of the Herault IGP, said that “the biggest thing we need the politicians to respond to is the ongoing drought. We are heavily impacted by climate change, and we have already begun to feel the effects of the winter drought. Every year we have climate-related issue. It’s really difficult for wine growers to continue pushing forward”.

During his visit to the fair on Saturday, President Macron addressed concerns about the drought, calling for a “water savings plan” through things like better “harvesting of rainwater” and “better distribution of drinking water”.

The president’s statements came just a few days before environment minister, Christophe Béchu, addressed local authorities to bring forward new water restrictions, to help respond to lower rainfall this winter.

READ MORE: France to impose water restrictions to avoid summer drought

But the Salon is not just about politics, it’s also a chance for France’s farmers and food and drink producers to meet their customers and show off their products.

“We lost a lot of sales during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the year when the Salon de l’agriculture was closed. Last year we started to make up for our losses, but this year is especially important to keep building on that”, explained Daniel, a wine producer and seller in the Burgundy area.

Daniel works alongside his family on the Nuits Saint Georges label. He told The Local that the agriculture fair plays a large role in the organisation’s yearly budget.

“It is the time when we come to renew connections with our old clients, and try to build new relationships to bring in more business. It’s a crucial time for our yearly budget and earnings”. 

Stéphane, a 52-year-old farmer from the France’s Nord departément, said: “The point of the fair is to show the general public – especially the Parisians and tourists – that agriculture is France’s richesse (treasure).  

“We can produce so many of our own products, and we don’t need to rely on other countries. It’s especially important to use this event to show people that, and to show off the fact that our products are of high-quality. It gives us one week under the spotlight to explain agriculture to those who might not visit the countryside themselves”.  

“That, and the competition, of course”. 

Stéphane, who owns and operates his farm of about 90 cows alongside his two brothers, has been attending the fair for over two decades, and was competing in the ‘most beautiful cow’ competition for the Prim’holstein breed.

His cow came in third place this year, after a long selection process where 1,000 cows are entered and only 100 are chosen for the final event. For him and many other farmers, an integral part of the farming event is entering their animals in shows and competitions.

Laurent Verdier, a farmer who raises young bulls (toros) in the Pyrenees in south-west France, echoed Stéphane’s summary. “The goal is for people to come to the Salon and see that they don’t need to go outside of France to find the products that they need, and it’s the same message for the politicians to hear too”. 

Verdier was not convinced that farmers are adequately listened to, however. 

“I think the politicians mostly come to give a performance, though who knows”.

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Could your French baguette taste a little different in future?

The baguette is an enduring feature of life in France, where some 320 baguettes are consumed every single second. New rules mean they might taste slightly different in future but at least they will be healthier.

Could your French baguette taste a little different in future?

Breakfast, lunch or dinner… there is never a bad time to eat a baguette in France. 

And the good news is: they are about to become healthier. From October 1st, new regulations mean that baguettes sold in bakeries should contain no more than 1.4g of salt per 100g, down from the current legal limit of 1.5g of salt per 100g.

The salt content in French baguettes sold in bakeries has already plummeted by 20 percent since 2015. 

The new rules form part of a wider government strategy to reduce salt consumption in France by 30 percent by 2025. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged all countries to follow the same target in a bid to reduce health problems such as hypertension. 

WHO guidelines say that adults should not consume more than 5g of salt per day, but the average French adult consumes between 7-8g. 

France’s National Confederation of Bakers is on board with the incoming regulations and acknowledges that bread contributes to about 20% of the average French person’s salt intake. 

Will this change the taste of baguettes? 

The salt content change is only very marginal – 0.1g per 100g – so it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the taste of baguettes.

The National Confederation of Bakers has said that the new rules will impose a “real challenge” to bakers who will now have to adjust other elements of their recipe to make a like-for-like product. “There are alternative solutions such as live sourdough, extra yeast or yeast extracts that can be used to compensate for the reduced salt content,” it said.  

It said that slightly adjusting the temperature at which the baguettes are baked could also go some way to compensating for this loss.

Other bread products also affected

It is not just traditional baguettes that will be affected by the new regulations. 

So-called pains spéciaux will also see a new salt threshold imposed of 1.3g per 100g. 

Pains spéciaux are breads that either use grains and flour distinct from those used to make traditional baguettes or plain white bread.

Examples include le pain de campagne (which uses regular wheat alongside rye sourdough), les pains au levain (sourdough breads), le pain complet (wholemeal bread), les pains aux céréales (which use multiple varieties of wheat) and les pains aux grains (which are generally covered in things like sesame or pumpkin seeds). 

The National Confederation of Bakers has said that various analyses and tests would be performed using samples taken from bakeries all over France, to ensure that salt limits for both pains spéciaux and pains traditionnels were being respected.