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Angry Farmers Are Reshaping Europe


Gazing out from his 265-acre farm to the silhouetted Jura mountains in the distance, Jean-Michel Sibelle expounded on the intricate secrets of soil, climate and breeding that have made his chickens — blue feet, white feathers, red combs in the colors of France — the royalty of poultry.

The “poulet de Bresse” is no ordinary chicken. It was recognized in 1957 with a designation of origin, similar to that accorded a great Bordeaux. Moving from a diet of meadow bugs and worms to a mash of corn flour and milk in its final sedentary weeks, this revered Gallic bird acquires a unique muscular succulence. “The mash adds a little fat and softens the muscles formed in the fields to make the flesh moist and tender,” Mr. Sibelle explained with evident satisfaction.

But if this farmer seemed passionate about his chickens, he is also drained by harsh realities. Mr. Sibelle, 59, is done. Squeezed by European Union and national environmental regulations, facing rising costs and unregulated competition, he sees no further point in laboring 70 hours a week.

He and his wife, Maria, are about to sell a farm that has been in the family for over a century. None of their three children want to take over; they have joined a steady exodus that has seen the share of the French population engaged in agriculture fall steadily over the past century to about 2 percent.

“We are suffocated by norms to the point we can’t go on,” Mr. Sibelle said.

Down on the European farm, revolt has stirred. The discontent, leading farmers to quit and demonstrate, threatens to do more than change how Europe produces its food. Angry farmers are blunting climate goals. They are reshaping politics ahead of elections for the European Parliament in June. They are shaking European unity against Russia as the war in Ukraine increases their costs.

“It’s the end of the world versus the end of the month,” Arnaud Rousseau, the head of the FNSEA, France’s largest farmers’ union, said in an interview. “There’s no point talking about farm practices that help save the environment, if farmers cannot make a living. Ecology without an economy makes no sense.”

The turmoil has emboldened a far right that thrives on grievances and rattled a European establishment forced to make concessions. In recent weeks, farmers have blocked highways and descended on the streets of European capitals in a disruptive, if disjointed, outburst against what they call “existential challenges.” In a shed full of the ducks he raises, Jean-Christophe Paquelet said: “Yes, I joined the protests because we are submerged in rules. My ducks’ lives are short but at least they have no worries.”

The challenges farmers cite include E.U. requirements to cut the use of pesticides and fertilizers, now partly dropped in light of the protests. Europe’s decision to open its doors to cheaper Ukrainian grain and poultry in a show of solidarity added to competitive problems in a bloc where labor costs already varied widely. At the same time, the E.U. has in many cases reduced subsidies to farmers, especially if they do not shift to more environmentally friendly methods.

German farmers have attacked Green party events. This month, they spread a manure slick on a highway near Berlin that caused several cars to crash, seriously injuring five people. Spanish farmers have destroyed Moroccan produce grown with cheaper labor. Polish farmers are enraged by what they see as unfair competition from Ukraine.

French farmers, who vented their fury against President Emmanuel Macron during his recent visit to the Paris Agricultural Fair — where politicians regularly pat the backsides of bulls to prove their bona fides — say they can scarcely dig a ditch, trim a hedge, or birth a calf without confronting a maze of regulatory requirements.

Fabrice Monnery, 50, who owns a 430-acre cereal farm, is among them. The cost for his electrified irrigation more than doubled in 2023, and his fertilizer costs tripled, he said, as the war in Ukraine increased energy prices.

“At the start of the war, in 2022, our economy minister said we were going to destroy Russia economically,” he said. “Well, it’s Russia’s war in Ukraine that’s destroying us.”

Farms are mythologized but misunderstood, he said. The soul of France is its “terroir,” the soil whose unique characteristics are learned over centuries by those cultivating it, yet the people living on that hallowed land feel abandoned. The average age of farmers is over 50, and many cannot find a successor.

Often the romanticized image of the French farm — cows being milked at dawn as the mist rises over undulating pasture — is at some distance from reality.

Through Mr. Monnery’s office window, the Bugey nuclear plant could be seen belching steam into the blue sky. Urban development and industrial zones encroach on highly mechanized farms abutting deserted villages where small stores have been crushed by hypermarkets that offer cheaper imported meat and produce.

“The graduates of elite schools that run this country have no idea about farm life, or even what a day’s labor feels like,” Mr. Monnery said. “They’re perched up there, the successors to our royal family, Macron chief among them.”

Ascendant far-right parties across the continent have seized on such anger three months before European Parliament elections. They portray it as another illustration of the confrontation between arrogant elites and the people, urban globalists and rooted farmers.

Their message is that the countryside is the custodian of national traditions under assault from modernity, political correctness and immigration, in addition to a thicket of environmental rules that, in their view, defies common sense. Such messages resonate with voters who feel forgotten.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s anti-immigrant National Rally party, argues that true exile “is not to be banished from your country, but to live in it and no longer recognize it.” Her young lieutenant, the charismatic Jordan Bardella, 28, who is leading the party’s election campaign, speaks of “punitive ecology” as he crisscrosses the countryside.

Mr. Bardella often finds a receptive audience. Vincent Chatellier, an economist at the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, said that close to 18 percent of French farmers live below the official poverty line, and 25 percent are struggling.

For the National Rally, the E.U.’s “Green Deal” and “Farm to Fork Strategy,” which aim to halve chemical pesticide use and cut fertilizer use by 20 percent by 2030 as part of a plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, are a thinly disguised attack on the French economy. In February, under pressure from farmer protests, the E.U. acknowledged how polarizing its efforts have become, scrapping an anti-pesticide bill.

A recent poll by the daily Le Monde gave Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally 31 percent of France’s European election vote, well ahead of Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party with 18 percent. Farmers may not contribute many votes directly but they are popular, even venerated, figures in France, and their discontent registers with a broad spectrum of voters.

In Germany, Stefan Hartung, a member of Die Heimat (Homeland), a neo-Nazi party, addressed a farmers’ protest in January and denounced Brussels and Berlin politicians who exert control over people by “imposing things like climate ideology, gender madness and all that nonsense.” Demonstrations by German farmers had not previously been as violent as the recent ones.

“It’s war between the Greens and farmers,” said Pascal Bruckner, an author and political commentator in France. “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Cyrielle Chatelain, a French lawmaker who represents the mountainous Isère region and leads a group of environmentalist parties in Parliament, said that it was wrong to say that “all farmers are angry with the Greens.”

“It’s less the idea of a green transition that angers them,” she said in an interview, “than the way it’s applied.”

The Green Deal stipulates, for example, that hedges, home to nesting birds, cannot be cut between March 15 and the end of August. But in Isère, Ms. Chatelain said, no bird would nest in a hedge on March 15 because the hedge is still frozen.

Thierry Thenoz, 63, a pig farmer in Lescheroux in southeastern France, told me he had replanted miles of hedges on his 700-acre farm. “But if I want to cut a 25-foot break in the hedge for a gate and a track, I have to negotiate with regulators.”

Mr. Thenoz, who invested long ago in a methane unit to recycle pig manure as fertilizer to make his farm self-sustaining, has also decided to retire and sell his shares in the farm. His three children, he said, were just not interested.

The cornerstone of a uniting Europe for more than six decades has been its Common Agricultural Policy, known as the C.A.P. As in the United States, where the government spends billions annually on farm subsidies, mostly for much larger farms than in western Europe, a viable agricultural sector is seen as a core strategic interest.

The European policy has kept food abundant, set certain prices, and helped ensure that France and the European Union have a large trade surplus in agricultural and food products, even as it has come under scrutiny for corruption and favoring the rich. Big farms benefit most.

French farmers who have led the protests of recent months over what they see as unfair competition from less regulated countries have themselves benefited enormously from E.U. subsidies and open global markets.

France has received more in annual financial support from Brussels for its farmers than any other country, more than $10 billion in 2022, said Mr. Chatellier, the economist. The French agriculture-and-food sector had a $3.8 billion surplus with China in 2022, and an even larger one with the United States.

But Europe’s agricultural policy is riddled with problems that have contributed to the farm uprising. An expanding E.U. introduced greater internal competition. Cheap chickens bred with much lower labor costs in Poland have flooded the French market. Such problems abound in a bloc that now has 27 members.

Tariff-free imports from Ukraine — where labor is even cheaper — have given a sobering sense of what eventual Ukrainian membership in the E.U. would mean. (This month, the E.U. imposed restrictions on some imports from Ukraine, including chicken and sugar.)

The C.A.P. has created an “unhealthy dependency,” Mr. Chatellier said. Farmers rely on politicians and officials, not consumers, for a substantial part of their revenue, and they feel vulnerable. Mr. Monnery said he received about $38,000 last year in E.U. aid, a sum that has declined steadily in recent years.

Increasingly, the money is tied to a raft of rules to benefit the environment. A new E.U. requirement that farmers leave 4 percent of land uncultivated to help “re-green” the continent provoked special fury — and has been put on hold for a year.

Governments are scrambling to contain the damage. Besides deferring some environmental rules, France has canceled a tax increase on diesel fuel for farm vehicles. It has turned against free trade, moving to block an agreement with Mercosur, a South American bloc accused by farmers of unfair competition.

The question is how much of a toll such concessions will take on the environment and whether these are cosmetic changes to what is widely seen as a dysfunctional, outdated European agricultural system.

Méryl Cruz Mermy and her husband, Benoît Merlo, who graduated in agricultural engineering from a prestigious Lyon school, have moved in the opposite direction from most young people.

Over the past five years, they built a 700-acre organic farm in eastern France where they grow wheat, rye, lentils, flax, sunflowers and other crops, as well as raising cattle. They went into debt as they bought and rented land.

If their path is to lead to the future of farming, it must be made easier, they said.

Mr. Merlo, 35, sees a “crisis of civilization” in the countryside, where automation means fewer workers, the work is too arduous to attract most young people, and credit for investment is hard to obtain. He joined one protest out of extreme frustration. “We don’t count the hours we work, and that work is not respected at its just value,” he said.

They are committed environmentalists, but a crisis in the organic food sector, known as “bio” in France, has added to their difficulties. Bio boomed for some years, but hard-pressed consumers now balk at the higher prices. Several big supermarkets have dropped organic food.

“New norms for a greener planet are necessary,” Ms. Cruz Mermy, 36, said, “but so are fair prices and competition.”

I asked if they might give up the farm life. “We have two children aged 3 and 7, so we have to be optimistic,” she said. “We want this farm to be an anchor for them. You look at the future — climate change, war, limited energy — and it feels ominous, but we go step by step.”

Over a century, that is what the family of Jean-Michel and Maria Sibelle did, breeding legendary poultry. Now, with a sense of resignation, they have come to the end of that road.

“I don’t have the physical force I once had,” Mr. Sibelle said. “That, too, is nature.”

“You know, I always wanted to be a farmer and had the good fortune to do that,” he added. “I would not have gone to a factory to work a 35-hour week even if I worked double that with my chicken and capons.”

He took me into his “prize room,” a shed filled with silver cups and trophies, Sèvres porcelain sent by presidents, framed accolades and other tributes to the greatness of his blue-white-and-red Bresse chickens, symbols of a certain France that endures, but only just.

Erika Solomon contributed reporting from Berlin.

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