How a farmers' strike in France is challenging EU core ideals

French farmers are blocking the importation of German and Spanish food in protest at low prices – adding a new challenge to EU ideals that are already under fire across the bloc.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
French farmers block trucks transporting food goods from foreign countries at the French-German border in Strasbourg, France, during a protest in late July against a squeeze in margins by retailers and food processors.

French farmers have been striking for weeks over a drop in milk and meat prices, expressing their anger by dumping manure on major roadways, burning tires, and blocking tourists from major sites.

Their protests are putting a founding principle of the European Union – free movement of goods – in the line of fire at a time when the 28-member bloc is already under siege from anti-EU populists on the right, anti-austerity protesters on the left, and a growing refugee crisis.

French farmers have blocked trucks carrying imported produce at the borders with Spain and Germany, in direct contravention of EU principles. The Spanish government has condemned the farmers' actions, including assaulting foreign-licensed trucks, as "an obvious violation of European rules, which enshrine the free circulation of people and goods through the territory of the European Union."

The strikes show a lack of understanding of the way European integration was intended to work, says Josef Janning, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “People don’t care [about the European ideals] anymore. We have moved into a phase on European integration where it ... is all about negotiations, who wins and who loses.”

'Grave time for France's farmers'

The forces behind falling food prices in France are myriad. Some of it is due to the Russian embargo on EU agricultural products in retaliation for sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine. But the farmers also blame mechanization, cheap labor, and less emphasis on quality from other European nations that they say has undercut their competitive advantage.

Pork producers are among those griping over low prices. Today, in the Breton town of Plérin, the bi-weekly pork auction was called off for the second time this week. The auction represents 18 percent of France’s pork sales. Today's sale leaves a glut of 50,000 pigs, as those that don't get sold are brought back to the farms, which risk major overcrowding if more auctions fail to take place. 

The price of French pork has fallen steadily since September 2014 when it reached 1.20 euros per kilo ($0.60 per pound). This is well below the average price of production of nearly 1.55 euros per kilo ($0.78 per pound.) 

The French government in June fixed the price of pork at 1.40 euros per kilo ($0.70 per pound), but the farmers say that's still too low to maintain any sort of quality of life. French industrial meat buyers, meanwhile, say the price is too high and that they can find cheaper alternatives elsewhere.

In fact, the Plérin auction was canceled after France’s two largest meat processing plants, Cooperl and Brigard, boycotted it, saying they are tempted by more attractive pricing in Spain and Germany. Cooperl said in a statement on August 6 that the price of pork in Germany was 25 cents less than in France.

"The time is extremely grave for France's farmers,” Michel Bloch, president of the Breton meat producers union, said in Plerin today. The president of the FNSEA, France’s agricultural union, claimed this week that Cooperl and Brigard were essentially taking farmers hostage by asking them to lower their prices by 15 cents.

The cost of integration?

The French overwhelmingly support the farmers; 86 percent of respondents in one poll were in favor. Many French also side with the “Made in France” initiative, intended to get French consumers to prioritize domestic production. On Wednesday, major French retailers like Casino, Intermarche, and Leclerc said they would maintain buying prices at 1.40 euros per kilo of pork to support farmers.

Paris resident Guillaume Meynard, shopping at a grocery store in the capital this week, said that he fully supports meat and produce from France. 

“It’s important to hold onto French traditions, our food is part of our heritage,” he says. “People are always thinking about making things as cheap as possible but they’re not thinking about quality. What we’re seeing now is a deterioration of our quality of life in France as well as our countryside. Everything has this monetary aspect now.”

But Cécile Barbier, a senior researcher at the European Social Observatory in Brussels, says that agricultural policy cannot be viewed in isolation from the European single market. “By accepting to be part of the European Union, members also accept that they no longer have the ability to decide everything themselves,” she says.

The farmer strikes could even foreshadow conflict ahead as the US and the EU negotiate a free trade deal, says Guillaume Xavier-Bender, transatlantic fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the US in Brussels.

If the French are already feeling undercut by lower quality, lower priced goods from Europe, he says, they might be even more wary about standards and regulations in the agricultural chapter of the negotiations. “This [French brouhaha] could be a prelude to what might happen” around the US-EU negotiations, he says.

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