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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New large-scale protests planned in south-west France against water storage project

Several thousand activists have gathered in south-west France ahead of two large-scale demonstrations against 'méga-bassines', the contentious irrigation project that has led to intense protests for the last two years.

New large-scale protests planned in south-west France against water storage project

At least 4,000 people have already gathered in south-west France, at the ‘Water Village’ encampment in the town of Melle, to protest this weekend against méga-bassines, a controversial planned network of giant underwater storage areas that farmers can use for irrigation in the event of a drought.

Demonstrations against méga-bassines have been going on for over two years in France, and some have involved violent clashes with police, leading to two protesters being severely injured in March 2023.

The protests are set to take place on Friday, at Saint-Sauvant in the Vienne département, at the site of a future méga-bassine, despite an announcement by local authorities that ‘all undeclared demonstrations in and around the town had been banned.’

The second protest is scheduled for Saturday, at the port of La Rochelle, in Charente-Maritime.

According to a press release by the one of the participating collectives, Bassines Non Merci, they hope to see 10,000 people participate.

There have also been calls by the farmers’ union, Coordination rurale, for counter-demonstrations on Friday.

In response, more than 3,000 gendarmes and police officers have been mobilised.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told the French press he feared there could be ‘acts of serious violence’, noting that security forces have identified 30 protesters as ‘Fiché S’ (on a state security watchlist).

READ MORE: Méga-bassines: Why has a dispute over irrigation in French farmland turned violent?

However, unions and organisations heading up the protests have disputed these claims. One of the organisers, Soulèvements de la Terre, specified on their website that their goal “is not to target individual farmers and their farms”. 

Why the controversy?

The project, backed by around 400 local farmers, is controversial because environmentalists say the mega-basins damage valuable wetland areas – the west of France has several wetland areas that shelter a wide variety of wildlife and the area is also known for salt marshes that produce a highly prized fleur de sel.

The protesters also say that the water tanks drain water from natural groundwater supplies and therefore make droughts worse for local residents and smaller farmers – essentially they see the basins as a ‘water theft’ from locals by big agri-businesses. 

The first major protests occurred in October 2022, which saw between 4,000 and 7,000 demonstrators gather in Sainte-Soline (the sight of the would-be mega-basins) and 1,500 police.

Molotov cocktails were thrown and more than 60 police officers injured in a three-day series of clashes.