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Why are French farmers (and their tractors) protesting in Paris?

French farmers protested government agricultural regulations Thursday as margins grow slimmer and smaller farms are nudged closer to bankruptcy.

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    A farmers stands atop his tractor while angry farmer drive on the Paris ring in Paris, France, Thursday, Sept.3, 2015.
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French farmers took their protests to the streets of Paris on Thursday. More than 1,500 tractors blocked streets and slowed traffic as farmers protested falling incomes.

French farmers say they are facing slimmer profit margins than ever before thanks to increased bureaucracy, cheap imports, and high payroll taxes. Fears of being unable to compete against German and Eastern European agriculture are also mounting, and protestors hope that tax breaks and other government concessions will better equip them to compete.

We came to express our dismay. We can't live from our job anymore," said Patrice Jaouen, a dairy and vegetable farmer from Brittany, to Reuters.

Six weeks ago, President Francois Hollande’s administration provided a debt relief package of about $674 million to the country's farmers. The government also pledged sweeping reforms to simplify regulations, delay and cut some bills, and even pay some debt on farmers’ behalf. The farmers are demanding more support.

French farmers face many obstacles to bringing in a profit. In the meat and dairy sections, slim margins are approaching crisis levels. European subsidies and sanctions against Russia have driven prices down. Many of the smaller, older farms in France are hard-hit and nearing bankruptcy.

“We are losing money. The problem is that we are competing with other countries in Europe where costs are much lower,” said Edourd Cavalier, a wheat farmer, to The Wall Street Journal.

Tractors spray-painted with signs of discontent, blocked major roads in the capital. Officials say they have caused little disruption ,and many of the protestors are wary about inconveniencing people on their way to work. Police have counted more than 1,500 tractors, buses, and cars protesting, according to reports.

The protest Thursday was organized by FNSEA, France’s largest farmers’ union. The FNSEA said that recent government concessions and the relief package are far too small.

“The question is whether we want to demolish the little that is left of agriculture in some regions,” said Xavier Beulin, head of the FNSEA, to The Wall Street Journal.

FNSEA representatives are set to meet with Prime Minister Manuel Valls soon. The discussions will focus on how to reduce regulations and spur investment in French agriculture. The FNSEA will likely push for the €3 billion (around $3.3 billion) investment that farming lobbies report is needed to modernize French agriculture.

Meanwhile, many of the farmers present for the protest had demands that were simpler and more personal. Philippe Nivost, a livestock farmer joined by two cows he brought from central France, said to Reuters "We need visibility for our future, a decent revenue to support our families." 

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